Justin Timberlake’s ‘The 20/20 Experience’: Review Revue (Part 1)

Justin Timberlake‘s comeback has been a clinic in controlling the message: what the message is, when it’s unveiled and how it’s disseminated. It began with, what, a three-day heads-up before “Suit & Tie” dropped? Then JT announced The 20/20 Experience‘s release date almost subliminally, at the end of his lyric video. He planned a joint tour with Jay-Z then joined SNL‘s Five-Timers Club right after, like it was no thing. He slyly changed a lyric in his lead single to respond to Kanye West‘s diss. And then yesterday, with no warning, Timberlake made his album available for free streaming on iTunes. And the pop culture world dropped everything, just as he planned it.

If there’s one takeaway from JT’s comeback, even if the album is a total disaster (which it isn’t), it’s that he’s a PR master. And while we love watching him work the spotlight and stoke the hype, ultimately we only care about the music. And so that inevitable question: was it worth the wait? Already, some critics have turned in reviews of this mammoth comeback effort — 10 tracks, 70 minutes, yeah that’s a seven-minute average length, people. So was it self-indulgent, grand or somewhere in between? See what the early reviewers had to say below. (Next week, we’ll put together another roundup after all the reviews — including ours — are in.)

:: Rolling Stone handed out a 4/5, noting that “it’s not quite a pop album. Its sense of musical space-time is more elastic and sprawling than anything on the radio […] songs unfurl into vamps, abruptly change keys, pile on unexpected beats and harmonies.” The mag also argues it’s a grower, not a shower: “The 20/20 Experience may test the patience of fans expecting immediate gratification […] But eventually the music sinks its teeth in, even on the wooziest songs.”

:: Billboard scored it an 88/100, saying “Justin Timerlake has returned as a more relaxed version of himself, with a brand new palette of musical shades. Despite the reunion of Timberlake and ‘FutureSex/Lovesounds’ producer Timbaland, ‘The 20/20 Experience’ is not a sequel of that groundbreaking album as much as a document of growth, crystallized within the medium of classic R&B.”

:: Entertainment Weekly was in the same range, grading it with a B and pointing out that “the music has a cool, cinematic vibe. For that, [Timberlake] can thank his longtime collaborator Timbaland, who’s the main producer here. His basic sound adheres to the JT formula: golden falsetto, electro-R&B grooves, Motown horns, and other retro glitz that will seduce your mom.”

:: SPIN surveyed its editors for another batch of “impulsive reviews,” leading to an average score of a meager 6.1/10. Some key takeaways: “[H]e obliged us with the creatively spent, justifiably smug, entirely self-satisfied comeback album we deserve. Too big to fail and involving too many crazy talented people to actually suck, this is nonetheless ludicrously bloated and almost offensively opulent.” Also, “It hits all the right notes for 2013, and then hits them for seven minutes with a string section […] They used to hit hard, and now are just making suave, scientifically of-the-moment pop. Playing it too safe, too fresh, too clean.”

:: USA Today gave it a 3/4, lauding the record for its “Funky horns and soulful strings” and allusions to Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones at their most playful. However, they found parts of the album to be a test of endurance. “If some of those grooves grow monotonous, it’s no surprise, as most tracks run more than seven minutes.”

:: People gave it a 4/4, and enjoyed the journey of tracks taking “interesting twists and dissolving into cool codas that wouldn’t make the radio edits” before gushing, “With lush, layered arrangements […] topped off by Timberlake’s falsetto-kissed vocals, this may be the best sounding album you’ll hear this year.”

:: The Daily Beast felt the album “showcases Timberlake’s impressive vocal stylings and the songs are expansive, employing creative and experimental musical progressions.” But the reviewer was left disappointed: “the album is lacking in Timberlake’s signature pop vibe, and the tracks seem to drag. Then again, perhaps all pop music is heading the way of JT — back to its R&B roots, as singers like Frank Ocean have exhibited (albeit with more thrilling results).”

What’s your first impression of The 20/20 Experience? Let us know in the comments, or by hitting us up on Facebook and Twitter!