And that brings me to The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake’s third full-length record and his first foray into new music in nearly six years. Since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake has filled his time acting (The Social Network, In Time, Friends with Benefits), hosting Saturday Night Live, and working on his comedy chops, but despite pleas from every direction, begging him to return to music, the pop star offered no indication until very recently that he would return at all. And you couldn’t have really blamed him if he didn’t. After all, Timberlake was basically a legend by the time he was 25: he’d conquered the world with ‘N Sync, transitioned into a successful solo career with 2002’s Justified—and its still-ubiquitous flagship single, “Cry Me a River”—ripped off Janet Jackson’s shirt on international television, and gained respectable critical approval with FutureSex/LoveSounds. Where could he go next? What did he still have to say or to prove? And would his long-awaited return to music even be able to meet the stratospheric expectations of fans and critics? Yes, it might have been safer for Timberlake just to call it a day. After all, 31 is a bit too young to enter the “past their prime” bracket.
But Timberlake, thankfully, has never been “safe,” and his latest album is the exact antithesis of the word. Those looking for another FutureSex will probably be disappointed. There’s no monster single here, no “SexyBack” or “Cry Me a River,” or even a “My Love” or “What Goes Around…” Where Timberlake’s sophomore album was largely grounded in up-to-the-minute pop sounds, dance-floor textures, and urban rhythmic drawl, The 20/20 Experience spends most of its runtime in classic, slow-burning soul and R&B mode. Timbaland is back in the producer’s chair, but the emphasis this time is more on atmosphere, flow, and mood than on catchy earworm hooks. And that’s not to say that these songs are forgettable, because the falsetto-driven hooks on songs like “Pusher Love Girl” and “Spaceship Coupe,” or the stadium-filling chorus of “Mirrors,” are as melodically resplendent as anything Timberlake has ever produced. Rather, these songs don’t quite have JT’s normal knack for latching themselves to the side of your brain after a single listen, and while that’s not really a shortcoming, it means that The 20/20 Experience probably won’t have the same pop-cultural ubiquity as his last two records did.
But if the album lacks something in the radio singles department, Timberlake more than makes up for it in terms of overall cohesion. The themes here are simple ones: love, lust, adoration, devotion, etc. etc., all likely inspired by Timberlake’s recent marriage to actress Jessica Biel. If the lyrics aren’t romantic gestures we’ve heard a million times before, they’re clumsy metaphors and analogies that would fall flat without the musical flourishes that prop them up. But Timberlake’s voice is, as always, a flawless instrument, lilting on gorgeous falsetto lines, delivering sultry, slinky melodies right and left, throwing in tasteful riffs, or moving into a full-on belt when the songs require it. Timbaland plays his part well too, somehow making the swirl of organic instrumentation, hypnotic samples, electronic loops, and other digital augmentations coalesce into sprawling sonic arrangements that feel both intimate and explosive, innately welcoming and dauntingly ambitious. Regardless of how listeners react to these songs on a personal level, there is no denying that The 20/20 Experience is an absolutely exquisite-sounding record from top to bottom, and with a pop music album, that’s sometimes half the battle.
Of course, all of the studio sheen in the world can’t save an artist if they don’t have the songs to back it up, and Timberlake certainly has a dense wall of material on hand this time around. The 20/20 Experience is only ten tracks long, but seven of them cross the seven-minute mark, and the two most-likely bids for mainstream radio airplay—the lounge-meets-club first single “Suit & Tie” and the brassy soul rave-up “That Girl”—still extend well past the accepted model of the three-and-a-half minute pop song. This album is long, full of shape-shifting tunes that drop from one style to another with almost no regard for genre boundaries. “Pusher Love Girl” swells at the top of the record with a string arrangement that feel ripped straight from a classic film score, morphs into a rousing piece of pop vocal bliss, and then settles into a magnetic neo-soul groove for its final minutes. The first half of “Strawberry Bubblegum” takes a cue from Frank Ocean’s tripped-out brand of R&B, while the outro accelerates into something that could almost have fit on an ‘N Sync album. And “Let the Groove Get In” begins as a hip-shaking nod to Latin music and ends as a pitch-perfect Michael Jackson impersonation.
And that’s where the accusations of overreaching will likely come in. It would be hyperbole to say that The 20/20 Experience has suffered a critical slapping, but compare its reception to the legacy of Timberlake’s last album—or perhaps even more notably, to the orgasmic praise that Frank Ocean’s similarly ambitious, similarly meandering Channel ORANGE earned from all corners last summer—and all the scores in the “8” or “B” ranges start to feel a bit more disappointing. Most writers, even the ones who like the album, accuse Timberlake of writing long songs for the sake of having epic track lengths, not because his musical creations actually justify those lengths. The review posted yesterday morning from The AV Club found the record so bloated that almost every song could stand to lose a minute in length—if not more—while Joe Caramanica of the New York Times essentially called the record a pretentious mess, a weak collection of songs disguising themselves in layers of false “artistry.”
But aside from a terribly-misguided rap verse on “Suit & Tie”—from Jay-Z, a once-great modern musical figure who now falls squarely into the “past their prime” bracket I referred to earlier—I can’t really find a minute here that I’d excise. Most of these songs save their finest moments for the back end, like the gloriously catchy “I’ll love you ‘til I make it pop” hook from “Strawberry Bubblegum,” or the dizzying conclusions to “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Tunnel Vision,” where Timbaland meticulously builds layers of production elements into towers of sonic force. On “Spaceship Coupe,” Justin mixes the attitude and sound of Prince with a hook that could have been culled from a Beyonce record. The song is hooky and fun throughout, but doesn’t reach its euphoric peak until nearly four minutes in, when an 80s-esque slow-jam guitar solo cuts across the center. It’s true that we could have reached these moments faster, but Timberlake gives the songs time to breathe, grow, and shift, and as a result, the peaks feel higher and more well-earned. Some listeners won’t have the patience to sit through one seven-minute song after another—especially on repeat plays—but for those who are, there’s a bounty of rewards to be found here.
By the time The 20/20 Experience takes its final left turn—with the gorgeous, somber ballad that is “Blue Ocean Floor”—Timberlake has truly run the gamut of pop music. A halting cassette-tape loop plays in the background, decaying with pulsing synths, distant piano lines, and a haunting tidal atmosphere as Timberlake delivers one of his most restrained vocal performances ever. “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore/And I can’t hear you through the white noise,” Timberlake warns on the cathartic chorus. “Just send your heartbeat I’ll go to the blue ocean floor/Where they find us no more, on that blue ocean floor.” It’s a strikingly intimate and serene ending to a record that often explodes in communal, lovelorn bombast, and for me, it’s the unquestionable highlight. But that’s the thing about The 20/20 Experience: this is the kind of record where everyone will have different favorite song, where what someone calls dull or overlong or indulgent will resonate perfectly with someone else, depending on that listener’s past musical tastes and experiences. And some critics may call that “overreaching,” may yearn for a more consistent style or wish that Timberlake didn’t try so many new things. But those kinds of people were also the ones who told the Beatles they were “just a pop band” when they started experimenting with studio art, or booed Dylan when he went electric. And we all know how those situations turned out.