Justin Timberlake, 'The 20/20 Experience'
Before we begin, let's take a moment to consider Justin Timberlake. Among his many gifts is the ability to make all this look easy, but make no mistake, this career is the result of an almost unparalleled work ethic. Timberlake is a lot more than just a triple-threat singer / actor / dancer (comedian / host / writer / produce r/ rapper / designer). He's also got the ability to do all of this in abundance without ever seeming annoyingly ubiquitous. Take his week-long takeover of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, which came after two Grammy appearances and his fifth SNL hosting gig. Who else could have pulled that off without seeming unbearably narcissistic? Who else would America gleefully accept as a regular guest on their television set? Timberlake's never jammed your radar, but he's never been off of it, either—even though The 20/20 Experience is his first album in seven years.
This brings us to the album, and it reveals another side of Timberlake we have not been privy to before this: artist. His 2006 sophomore effort FutureSex/LoveSounds is now rightly heralded as a pop music game-changer, but it wasn't nearly this daring. Topping charts is a younger man's game, and Timberlake seems to know it. The 20/20 Experience is less a bid for popularity than it is for respect.
Take the first track, "Pusher Love Girl." It opens with a series of preposterous strings that call to mind old Hollywood (as does Timberlake's new affinity for sharply tailored suits and Draper-esque side parts.) For eight minutes, this song weaves through soulful plunks laced with Timberlake's own shimmering vibrato. He's been writing pop hooks since before he could legally drive, but he doesn't resort to cheap ear candy here. Instead, he challenges with Marvin Gaye-like vocal runs that soothe, surprise and smolder.
Perhaps you've heard "Suit and Tie," the second most accessible song on the album, which features an uncharacteristically ho-hum verse from Jay-Z. Of every song here, that song sounds the most like modern pop music and lovers of modern pop music can keep it. The rest of the album is for people who remember a time when the music industry wasn't dominated by MTV, and wouldn't mind bringing that era back. The next few songs, "Don't Hold the Wall," "Strawberry Bubblegum" and "Tunnel Vision" make up the album's strongest stretch. "Don't Hold the Wall" has a suspenseful rumble with a chorus of crickets and screaming children to keep things in check. "Strawberry Bubblegum" bobs at a lower, silkier register, girded by a fascinating tapestry of symphonic noises. And then there's "Tunnel Vision," a frenetic blitz of cascading melodies and dizzying beats. It's all a little eerie and adult-sounding, the average track length is around seven minutes, and it's hypnotic.
It all builds towards "Mirrors," the album's penultimate, radio-friendliest and most divisive track. It's an achingly earnest love epic for his new wife Jessica Biel that pulls absolutely no punches. It sounds more like 'N Sync than anything Timberlake's done since his own personal star effectively overshadowed and dissolved the world's most popular boy band, in its heart-clutching, hankie-twisting, brazen confession of undying love. Not for everyone, "Mirrors" isn't, but anyone who doesn't take to it is too cynical for my liking.
But those who don't like "Mirrors" should stick around for the album closer, "Blue Ocean Floor." A slow, haunting series of naval drones that wash over you in vaguely threatening waves. It's reminiscent of being peacefully lost in the deepest part of the ocean.
The 20/20 Experience is getting criticized for not having enough pep or urgency, which is sort of like criticizing an opera for not having a clown. What Timberlake's trying to do here is much more interesting than what anyone expected from him: a brave, unclassifiable exploration of neo-soul, funk, tribal beats, world music and R&B. It's 10 tracks that prove his fame is no fluke; though he could make a comfortable living recycling "My Love" for the rest of his dancing days, he's choosing to push himself, his sound and pop music in general to newer, better heights. It leaves you wanting more, which is just as well: He's announced that he'll have a new album coming later this year.