In pop music, the distance Justin Timberlake has put between his previous LP, FutureSex/LoveSounds, and his latest, The 20/20 Experience, amounts to something like an eternity. To put it in perspective, it’s the same amount of chronology that Fiona Apple let pass between Extraordinary Machine and last year’s The Idler Wheel; that’s enough time for many listeners to practically forget that an artist exists, enough time for a fan of the older album to undergo a fairly drastic change in tastes. Essentially, it’s enough time to call it a comeback.
Then again, Apple and Timberlake are different beasts entirely. Apple’s hitmaking days are behind her (it was never her bag to begin with, but still); Timberlake, for better or for worse, has been christened pop royalty on the strength of his two solo LPs, and is likely to slink onto the airwaves for the remainder of his career. And then there’s the fact that Timberlake has hardly gone away; since FutureSex/LoveSounds made it cool for grown men to recreationally listen to an album by a former teen pop star, Timberlake’s honed his comic chops on “Saturday Night Live”, acted in countless movies, kept his brand alive. JT’s return to music was inevitable; it was just a question of when we were all going to stop considering him an actor and start thinking of him as a singer again. And, of course, a question of whether or not we’d care about what he had to say, musically, in 2013; would we wince, retroactively write FS/LS off as a fluke, and encourage Timberlake’s evolution into a funnyman? Or would we allow The 20/20 Experience to soak in, knock our car speakers like they did in ’06, and embrace the music?
On first listen, The 20/20 Experience seems like a logical progression from FutureSex. Opening with an orchestral flourish before launching into the confident, stutter-step funk of “Pusher Love Girl”, the record almost immediately sounds like the work of the man who released 2006’s most pleasant surprise; it reaches a logical conclusion and then pushes further, Timbaland stepping in to work and mold the track into something different, yet clearly constructed of the same raw material. Timberlake raps some; it’s not as embarrassing as it sounds. It seems like reinvention of the wheel, but it’s not; clearly, Timber and Timbo have taken to heart the universal rapture granted their lengthier excursions on FutureSex. The writers — myself included — downright salivated over those tracks, the way that the two parts of “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around” bled into each other, JT’s sorrow giving way to excoriating, taunting anger, the way that “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows” somehow bridged the gap between floor-filling funk and Coldplay-esque arena rock, each piece disassembled and repositioned for optimum effect. The 20/20 Experience is, for the most part, ten tracks of that, in form if not always content. The soundscapes are lush, busy, dense; many undergo an indelible metamorphosis during their considerable runtimes, leaving the listener with a coda that shares scant (but unmistakable) strands of DNA with the remainder of the song.
Which is nice; whether you think JT is the genuine article, or a mugging smoke-blower, it’s hard to deny that ambition like this is hard to come by in pop music. The swooning strings on the minor-key, ominous “Tunnel Vision” are a thing of beauty — they sound authentic, orchestral, the tone stacking up just right. JT’s r&b ambitions serve him well here; his obsession with ineffable cool and suit-clad class in his most recent televised performances point to a retro-leaning platter, and while that’s true to a point, The 20/20 Experience looks to the future just as often, most notably when Timbaland pinches the track like Silly Putty and stretches it, omitting elements, adding horn bleats and bass farts and skittering rhythms. It’s successful sometimes; “Spaceship Coupe”, JT’s stab at an epic, reverb-soaked Prince ballad doesn’t quite sell the futuristic concept until an acid-trip guitar solo wafts in from another planet entirely, and canned sex noises float through the ether (the phantom woman’s repeated squeal almost resembling the echoing baby’s wail from Aaliyah’s Timbo-produced “Are You That Somebody?”). And then it’s a perfectly acceptable slow jam about banging on a spaceship, somehow.
Although: it’s important to note that when Justin sets his sight on a retro jam, he’s got a way with the form. “That Girl” is as traditional as this album gets, a southern-fried, sunny love song with Talking Book on the brain; even lead single “Suit & Tie”, minus it’s chopped-and-screwed intro and abrupt Jay-Z verse, sounds like a bit of a blast from the past with those classy, old-school horn breaks. “Let the Groove Get In” laces 20/20‘s lurching funk with a bit of Latin dancefloor groove, channeling Miami Sound Machine, of all frames of reference; the result is repetitive, eminently danceable, bursting into an ethereal electric-piano laced section just as that beat threatens to become redundant. (It’s more successful than “Don’t Hold the Wall”, another number that asks you to dance without ever inspiring it; those galloping fake congas on “Groove” are the most propulsive thing on a pop record yet this year.) Sonically, The 20/20 Experience is almost unassailable. Each suite is calculated for maximum impact, each transition timed perfectly. Co-producers Timberlake and Timbaland deserve recognition for the shape-shifting, rhythmic nature of their record, and the way genres ping-pong off one another while maintaining consistency and mood.
There are criticisms to be lobbied, of course. With all this ballyhoo about production, JT’s lyrics have taken a bit of a hit. To wit: there’s nothing lyrically to actually connect with here. It’s not that we’ve all been under the delusion that the ex-boy band member was secretly a Dylan, but a lot of the metaphors on 20/20 are severely stilted. An album this focused on romantic love (or, occasionally, lust) needs more ways to express itself, but no: your love/sex is like a drug, or candy, or a mirror, or sunshine or whatever. Nothing’s particularly dunderheaded (although “yesterday is history/tomorrow’s a mystery” seems like a lyric you either pen when you’re 14 and inexperienced or 60 and too old to care), but it’s hard to connect emotionally with songs that don’t compel it. Melodies, too, are in short supply; even “Suit & Tie”, while unflappably cool and groovy, doesn’t boast a central melody to speak of. But draped over music this velvety, most things sound nice; and when JT hits upon a good melody, it’s a humdinger, as in “Pusher Love Girl” or the perfect “Mirror”. (I don’t care that it’s a stilted metaphor anymore. It’s a perfect song and deserves to be treated as such.)
Ambitious and sonically dense, The 20/20 Experience is required listening. It’s imperfect, yeah, and at times a little too much; the succinct pop jams tempered with fits of experimental flexing that characterized FutureSex/LoveSounds will probably be Timberlake’s lasting legacy as a solo artist, and that’s fine, and hopefully he goes back to the well sometime. Still, you can’t be mad at the man. Still considered pop royalty, Justin Timberlake has put out a sprawling, messy album of prog-pop and psychedelic r&b — and for the most part, it’s tuneful, and entertaining, and kind of delightful. Gotta respect that, right?
Grade: B+, but it’s a hard B+.