Justin Timberlake’s ‘The 20/20 Experience’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | March 19, 2013 5:30 am
Whether we like it or not, Justin Timberlake is a healthy generation (or two) removed from the current incarnation of Billboard’s Hot 100; a member of pop music’s old guard. His last album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, was released six-and-a-half years ago and established Timberlake as a restlessly inventive pop auteur, pushing his love of Michael Jackson R&B into weirder, more dangerous places. If his solo 2002 debut Justified finally cut the umbilical cord from his boy band roots, FutureSex practically erased all memory they ever existed. He’s spent the interim positioning himself as a serious acting talent and a burgeoning business mogul with a healthy set of investments including a clothing line, golf courses and numerous tech ventures (which included buying MySpace dirt cheap in 2011).

And now, with the release of his third album The 20/20 Experience today (), Timberlake, in the words of Grantland’s Steven Hyden, is a “luxury brand.” He possesses a Jay-Z level of cultural influence and business acumen (it’s no coincidence these two are touring together this summer) confident in the fact that his place in the pop pantheon is cemented and reflected upon more favorably with time. In essence, he has absolutely nothing left to prove. The 20/20 Experience seems like it stands apart from the crop of high profile pop releases from the past few years because JT doesn’t seemed concerned with dramatically grabbing your attention: he’s had it for years.

As a result, The 20/20 Experience is both consummately professional and confusingly indulgent. The gorgeously polished production from Timbaland, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon and Rob Knox coupled with Timberlake’s effortless ability to craft sensual, fugue-like R&B-dance epics makes for an album that cruises with the elegant opulence of a Maybach Landulet; all rough edges and tight angles absent. The indulgence comes from the fact that 20/20 is a 10-track album with a robust 70:02 running time (about a 7:00 average for each song), where Timberlake and his collaborators repeatedly exhaust the sonic possibilities of their stone-cold grooves with bloated jam sessions.

“Strawberry Bubblegum” best summarizes Timberlake’s talent being marred by his aimless ambition. At just shy of 8:00, the track’s first five minutes slink and sulk with moody synths and airy string sections, as Timberlake suggestively croons, “Don’t ever change your flavor cause I love the taste.” Eventually, “Bubblegum” dissolves into a three-minute coda of cheesy keyboards and cheap, uptempo production.

The Eastern inspired “Don’t Hold The Wall” would be a solid, driving club banger, but lingers four minutes past its welcome on the back of a one-dimensional (but infectious) beat. The same problem exists with the slow burning galactic funk of “Spaceship Coupe”: it’s potent in small doses but becomes diluted over another 7:00 running time.

The tracks that succeed still don’t necessarily merit their extended lengths, but given that they are such fantastic examples of Timberlake working at the height of his powers, it’s easier to ignore. Album opener “Pusher Love Girl” is just an expertly-crafted pop-soul jam, layering horns, string sections and a legion of falsetto-sung harmonies over a simple bumping beat. First single “Suit & Tie” could do without the clunky opening vignette, but possesses the most nuanced production on the album thanks to Timbaland’s penchant for piecing together a small symphony of syncopated percussion parts. Album centerpiece “Tunnel Vision” is the crown jewel of 20/20, the one instance where the ambitious track length sustains the intrigue laid down by the intoxicating, dense funhouse production, and Timberlake’s lurid plot of lovelorn obsession. On all three songs (and most of the album for that matter) Timberlake’s vocal performance remains unimpeachable; a boyish croon that can drift between cool, limber, coy, soulful and straight-up sexy from one line to the next.

Questlove recently revealed that a sequel to 20/20 will emerge this fall, and suggested the first installment was almost too jam-packed with ideas to really breathe. The high points of The 20/20 Experience are extremely high, and as far as mainstream pop goes, few releases, if any, could be considered a worthy rival. But we still look to Timberlake to kick down doors like he did on FutureSex/LoveSounds, and the fact remains that 20/20 is an unbelievably beautiful machine driving in circles; ambitious for ambition’s sake.

Best Song that Wasn’t the Single: “Tunnel Vision” feels like a spiritual predecessor to “Cry Me A River”: sensual, but obsessive and voyeuristic.

Best Listened to: While driving in the back of a white Maybach in a white suit, drinking champagne at dusk.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

— Patrick Bowman