by PETER TABAKIS
Early last January, Justin Timberlake teased his return to pop music on a one-minute video that instantly went viral. Shot in black and white for full dramatic flair, the video shows Timberlake making his way into a recording studio while in voice-over he wrestles with the question everyone’s been asking during his seven-year sabbatical: “So are you just done with music?” His reply:
[Music] means more to me than to anybody else in the world. Look, I’ve only done two albums in ten years. That’s the way I really look at it. What does the next decade mean for me? I’m the one who sits and is obsessive about it before you even get to hear it. As close as I get to it, I don’t know that I can physically torture myself that much year in and year out and expect it to fulfill me the way that it does and the way that it is right now. I don’t want to put anything out that I feel like is something I…I…I don’t love. You just don’t get that every day. You have to wait for it.
What a jumbled and oddly defensive response to a question he’s surely answered countless times in private on film sets, at fashion shows, and on putting greens. The video ends with JT putting on headphones and speaking two words into a microphone: I’m ready. The implied question for the rest of humanity is: Are you? Finally! Some bravado from the guy who once sang of his tremendous allure with a rare, perfectly worded lyric: “Is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?”
The video, unfortunately, is emblematic of the album it heralds, The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake’s third solo release and his botched attempt at a pop masterpiece. This almost-terrific album, sometimes overreaching but more often frustratingly cautious, falls short largely thanks to JT’s muddled artistic vision. 20/20 is a contradictory experience. Its ten tracks sprawl boldly over 70 minutes, but too many of those minutes are wasted on retro-soul regurgitations and interminable codas. And yet the album sounds fantastic throughout (if you’re willing to sit through all of it). Timbaland (who co-produced each track with Timberlake and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon), as electrifying as ever, is 20/20’s true superhero. With his finest studio embellishments in years, he swoops in and rescues the album whenever it threatens to teeter off the cliff into mind-numbing monotony.
With The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake has created a gigantic pop jigsaw puzzle slathered in glue. Its many exceptional moments appear in patches, here and there, over and over again, within long stretches of dazzling sonic filler. Of the many wonderful songs on 20/20, none can be easily plucked out to rival “Cry Me a River,” “My Love,” or “What Goes Around…Comes Around.” “Suit & Tie,” the album’s sunshiny, if insubstantial, first single is pleasant enough, sure, with all of its sparkly harp glissandos and cheerful horn blasts. But its digestible runtime is its greatest asset. (Still, it’s too long.)
Timberlake’s music has always been a prism, refracting his classic influences. Justified tenderly restyled Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. FutureSex/LoveSounds experimented with mid-career Prince. On The 20/20 Experience, JT mostly invokes the breezy 70s soul of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, though MJ and Prince make notable appearances (the former on the second half of “Don’t Hold the Wall,” the latter on “Strawberry Bubblegum” and “Spaceship Coupe”.) Then there are the whackadoo homages to the Miami Sound Machine (“Let the Groove In”) and Chicago (“Mirrors”), that hint at how incredible The 20/20 Experience might have been, were Timberlake (& co.) willing to risk going off the rails a bit more.
20/20 is an R&B album, minus the “B.” Propulsion rules the record, especially on Eastern-influenced “Don’t Hold the Wall,” “Tunnel Vision” (a sonic sequel to “Cry Me a River” and “What Goes Around…Comes Around”), and the feverish “Let the Groove In.” The album is thoroughly sunny by way of its poor lyrics, which resemble modern-day Madonna’s worst (perhaps it’s something he picked up during their unfortunate collaboration?) and the stuff of Prince-parody. Love is like your favorite drug (“Pusher Love Girl”) or maybe it hails from wrong side of the tracks (“That Girl”); sex somehow resembles sugary treats (“Strawberry Bubblegum”) or maybe it’s an intergalactic joyride (“Spaceship Coupe”). Do I need to mention Timberlake doesn’t count Dylan as one of his influences?
As much as The 20/20 Experience exasperates me, I’m often left rapt. “Pusher Love Girl” – the album’s auspicious opener – bounces to and fro during its verse, erupts into a superb chorus, and only improves during its cracked second half. Timbaland weaves human beatbox, strings, manic percussion, and odd electronics into a lavish tapestry on “Tunnel Vision,” his showcase.
20/20 concludes with its three most intrepid tracks. “Let the Groove In” is a triumph of roiling beats and textures, with JT’s voice a mote within the ecstatic dance-floor maelstrom. “Mirrors,” the album’s open-hearted anthem, is a wedding song for narcissists; its glorious chorus would make Peter Cetera proud. The amorphous splendor of “Blue Ocean Floor” finds JT at his most adventurous, certainly his biggest surprise since transforming into a solo artist on Justified.
The 20/20 Experience is confused, sloppy, frustrating, too safe, a let-down. Timberlake’s lyrics are laughable. The album begs to be edited. While these observations hold true – at least part of the time – there remains another, incontrovertible, truth: 20/20 is a total blast. You have to hand it to Justin Timberlake. Few pop artists have the skill and bravery to make such a stunning mess. [B]
Find it at:
Stream The 20/20 Experience at iTunes.