Album Review: Justin Timberlake, “The 20/20 Experience”
by Samuel Tolzmann on March 20, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Music, Pop, R&B / Soul
Artist: Justin Timberlake
Album: The 20/20 Experience
Released: March 19, 2013
Genre: Pop, R&B/Soul
RIYL: Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Hot Chip, Junior Boys, Michael Jackson, N*Sync, Prince, Timbaland, Usher
Key tracks: “Mirrors,” “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Blue Ocean Floor”
In the world of pop music, seven years is a lifetime, and in the twenty-first century, time moves with even more velocity and even less sympathy than ever. Entire musical careers have hit it big and then died withering deaths in the time since Justin Timberlake released the career- and era-defining FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. That album was released before Burial’s Untrue and the crossover success of dubstep; before Radiohead pioneered the pay-as-you-please record distribution scheme; before MGMT, Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, and Vampire Weekend moved enough cumulative units to siphon most of the meaning from the term “indie rock.” Today, American mainstream pop is slave to the mindless artifice of 4/4 house, sucking R&B and hip-hop – with which it cavorted more creatively and broadly a decade ago – into its hedonistic orbit. In 2006, FutureSex/LoveSounds seemed aptly titled, for, if other pop made at the time strove to sound contemporary, FutureSex showed us what the future might be like. Alas, Timberlake and his ingenious collaborator Timbaland, inarguably the greatest pop producer of the early 2000s, were producing work at a level too sophisticated, complex, and imaginative for their peers and successors to follow suit. Nothing against the masterpiece that is Timberlake and Timbaland’s “SexyBack,” but it is deeply unfortunate that in seven years, pop hasn’t produced much that comes close to matching its white-hot, weirdly disjunctive, scarily oversexed sizzle. Only Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and LCD Soundsystem’s last two albums marry sheer mass appeal with sonic creativity in a comparable manner, and even they pale. FutureSex should have been hugely influential, but instead it was just widely admired: generally speaking, whatever future that album was beamed in from, we’re still not there.
But Justin Timberlake’s still there – luckily for us. Timberlake is a pop star of the highest order, and with the exception of Beyonce Knowles – who maintains a similar distance from the fast-paced media culture of the zeitgeist, embraced by other contemporary pop icons like West and Lady Gaga – he’s the only one who possesses the cache to be able to bend cultural time to his own will, rather than the other way around. Timberlake disappeared from music altogether following the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour and a couple guest spots on Timbaland’s solo album Shock Value II, starring in a few Hollywood films (he’s actually a decent actor; check The Social Network and Alpha Dog for evidence) and getting married to Jessica Biel during his hiatus; now, he returns to music like hardly any time has passed at all. On his newest release, an optometry-themed collection of paeans to monogamy entitled The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake reunites with Timbaland and makes a supremely hubristic record that brims with the kind of unorthodox decisions only an artist with a recent smash hit is usually able to get away with – most of the songs run over seven minutes and defiantly resist Euroclub thump or bowel-rumbling “brostep” – and yet, Timberlake’s last hit was seven years ago. Given all this, The 20/20 Experience should be a failure, but, in a testament to Timberlake’s brilliance as a songwriter and performer and his chemistry with Timbaland, it’s an outstanding album that deserves to be a classic instead. It doesn’t even feel like a comeback; to paraphrase the best of the new songs, it feels strangely like Timberlake’s been here all along.
Those lengthy runtimes are a natural extension of the pair’s previous album, which found major-key numbers turning minor around the five-minute mark and offering up dark reflections of themselves (What Goes Around…Comes Around,” “LoveStoned/I Think That She Knows”). Indeed, in almost every way, the sense persists that 20/20 builds on its predecessor without much regard for what else has been happening in pop. Things have been getting increasingly promiscuous and hedonistic on chart radio, but Timberlake has never been too comfortable with those notions; FutureSex might have kicked off with the explicitly raunchy one-two punch of “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and “SexyBack,” but on indelible fourth track “My Love” Timberlake found himself trying to be Casanova and ending up on one knee in spite of himself, setting the tone for the rest of the album – recall also “Summer Love,” wherein what was meant to be a brief fling unexpectedly evolves into something much more powerful. Timberlake’s always been a monogamous kind of man; it’s been central to his appeal from the N*Sync days on through the wounded “Cry Me A River” and all of FutureSex. Now that he’s actually married, Timberlake works hard (as Beyonce did on her similar 2011 effort 4) to communicate the sexiness and warmth of long-term commitment as opposed to the endless nights of drunken bed-hopping narrated by most of his peers – it’s no accident that Beyonce’s husband, Jay-Z, is the rapper selected for the album’s only guest verse on “Suit & Tie.”
Again, as with Beyonce, Timberlake achieves this because of a combination of high-wattage star power, basic personal likability, an outsized dose of sex appeal, and actual vocal prowess. No one working today has a falsetto that’s both as boy-next-door appealing and as irresistibly seductive. An equally talented songwriter without the vocal chops could never have pulled off 20/20 with as much style and feeling. In a key lyric, FutureSex sneered, “Is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?” (from “Sexy Ladies”), and a lot of the joy of that album was hearing that question answered, Timberlake’s borderline-ridiculous hubris validated by the still-unparalleled music and its rampant sexuality, and qualified by the singer’s subtly expressed neuroses. For The 20/20 Experience, the stakes aren’t as high, the cocksure strut’s loosened up to a stroll, and the neuroses are dealt with; the very tension that made the 2006 record immediately thrilling and addictive (Will he really bring sexy back?) is dissipated. That tension was specifically sexual, so if the sexual stakes of Timberlake’s music have lowered, he wisely opts to use this as an occasion to raise the artistic ones. The hubris of FutureSex was personal; the hubris of 20/20 is creative. This may a domesticated version of Timberlake, one who stays in on Fridays (but definitely still gets out on Saturdays), but by virtue of his vocal prowess and courageous songwriting, it’s not a boring version.
If FutureSex referred reverently to pop history (especially big band schmaltz and the 1980s’ flirtation between R&B and synthpop) while sounding like radio hits from a decade down the line, 20/20 manages the considerably more difficult feat of sounding genuinely timeless. Most of the popular sounds of the twentieth century get their say at some point on this album: brass fanfare, skyscraping strings, Latin-inflected guitar, epic arena rock, and cool jazz piano are all present, as are the syrupy boy-band harmonies that first brought Timberlake to fame and the combination of clattering polyrhythms and vaguely eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged analog synthesizers that instantly denote Timbaland’s work. One of the pair’s continued strengths is the integration of all these sounds; because of the extended length of the cuts here, they manage it by packing each song full of movements and shifts in genre, tone, and tempo, all held together by surprisingly multivalent details and flexible melodies. Highlight “Strawberry Bubblegum” is like three songs in one, with consistency daringly maintained by a gorgeous, simple two-note violin figure and a goofy lyrical metaphor. First single “Suit & Tie” announces itself with a chopped-’n’-screwed intro that’s pure 2012 before spreading its wings and launching into a flawless confection blending classic big-band, 2000s hip-hop, and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. It’s hard not to go through every song on the record, since they’re all insanely hooky and bring about a dozen new things to the conversation each; it’s remarkable that on an album whose tracks nearly all pass the seven-minute mark, things almost never drag or bore.
Almost. It’s a commonplace by now that Timbaland’s lost the golden touch that made him a living legend in the 2000s (remember Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous,” EVERYONE?), and this fact mars 20/20 at select moments. The album sounds like it cost about a million dollars to make – not an inherently bad thing, of course, but the principal problem with this record is that quite a few of those dollars seem to have been spent on all the wrong things. Namely, the mixing is an issue overall: on a hooks-first pop album like this one, the vocalist should never have to contend for the spotlight, but Timbaland tends to overstuff the songs and the mixing does Timberlake no favors. And while Timbaland often delivers better beats here than on anything else he’s done since the mid-2000s (“Tunnel Vision,” “Don’t Hold The Wall”), there are moments when his rhythm tracks go flaccid. “Spaceship Coupe” is a particularly egregious offender that aims to interpolate the hydraulic strut of Dr. Dre’s “Still DRE” with a guitar-soloing Prince-worthy sex jam, but just awkwardly belly-flops due to an utter lack of rhythmic identity. “Let The Groove Get In” is another moment when the percussion isn’t up to snuff, but fortunately its other elements – stabbing brass, cheeky piano, gorgeous harmonies, and ballsy dynamic shifts – manage to compensate. As a counterpoint, consider the closer “Blue Ocean Floor,” which wisely foregoes any attempt at rhythm and is all the better for it: a lush, elegantly melancholy swirl of warping electronics and delicate strings. And it’s important to remember that such criticisms are relative. At its worst, this album is exceptionally functional and enjoyable, and at its frequent high points, it blows most of Timberlake’s peers out of the water. It’s exciting, interesting, intelligent, heartfelt, and richly generous work that across the board manages to gracefully match Timberlake’s own impossibly high standard.
All that said, there’s a special place in heaven for 20/20’s penultimate number, “Mirrors,” which makes even “My Love” look like it had training wheels. Timbaland’s strongest rhythm in years provides a rock-solid foundation for this thunderous, genre-bending arena epic that bursts with elements: catchy backing vocals, gigantic synth and guitar lines, orchestral glissandos, beatbox, warbling vocoder, a monumental handclap track, decorative piano – even an (indispensable) triangle. A true marvel of pacing, dynamics, and structure, the song mutates elusively over and over, deconstructing itself in the downtempo second half as the repetitive chant “You are, you are the love of my life” becomes its central lyric – all while maintaining a constant, near-overwhelming state of emotional climax. It’s an intensely private devotional blown up to widescreen proportions, constructed with brains and performed with more heart than seems possible. It’s a perfect thing, brimming with radiant feeling – the best Timberlake’s ever been (and Timbaland, too). Even more so than the rest of The 20/20 Experience, it’s an invaluable reminder in a bleak time for chart radio that patience can still be a virtue and pop can still be art. Not bad.
Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: 1. Pusher Love Girl 2. Suit & Tie (featuring Jay-Z) 3. Don’t Hold The Wall 4. Strawberry Bubblegum 5. Tunnel Vision 6. Spaceship Coupe 7. That Girl 8. Let The Groove Get In 9. Mirrors 10. Blue Ocean Floor