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Friday, May 17, 2024

In hindsight, Justin Timberlake’s ‘20/20 Experience’ is a joy

In 2002, Justin Timberlake released his debut solo album, Justified, a commercial success and a distinctive move away from his boy-band success with ’N Sync.  While Timberlake and the rest of ’N Sync were an important part of my early childhood, Timberlake made the solo-move at the perfect time, and the Timbaland-produced album assured it was still cool to like Justin Timberlake.

In January of 2013, when Timberlake officially announced the release of a new album six years after FutureSex/LoveSounds, the world was ready for his return to the world of music.  His songwriting talent was too great for him to remain solely an actor and his recent return to the Grammy’s was as triumphant as the return of Justin Timberlake should be.

His third album to date, The 20/20 Experience opens with a stirring and swirling collection of strings playing him in, as if to build up the arrival of Timberlake on “Pusher Love Girl.”  The song clocks in at more than eight minutes long, one of three tracks on the album to achieve such length (while only one song is shorter than five minutes).

The homage to soul music, mixed in with the glitch-electronic break at the end of the song, is something distinctly Timberlake and Timberland, as only they could pull off such a strong contrast of styles.  The album evokes strong shades of D’Angelo, the king of neo-soul, to accent the more modern-electronic influences.

The lead single of the album, “Suit & Tie,” a collaboration between Timberlake and Jay-Z, is one of my least favorite songs on the album.  The inconsistencies of the song—the middle of the song is smooth and soulful while the introduction and the guest verse by Jay-Z—seem forced in. Timbaland’s footprints are all over the song; seemingly illogical shifts in tone and feel are an unfortunate hallmark of Timbaland-produced albums.

Sometimes the bizarre shifts in feel work to the song’s favor, though.  In “Don’t Hold the Wall,” the song ends with an electronic, four-on-the-floor beat with Timberlake crooning over the top. It will be interesting to see what a radio edit of this song would sound like, as tracks like this contain almost two different songs.

Timberlake’s ambition on this album sometimes falls flat, as songs such as “Tunnel Vision” are seven minutes or longer and make you want to press fast forward almost as soon as the track starts.  Additionally, the lyrical content of some of these songs leave a lot to be desired. Personally, I am willing to give him a pass as Timberlake’s words are infrequently the focal point of the song.

I keep coming back to the song “Let the Groove Get In,” whose lines “Are you comfortable, right there right there/Let the groove get in, feel it right there” are repeated ad nauseam over the course of the seven minute song—the catchy hook and Latin rhythms draw me back time and again.

The penultimate song on the album, “Mirrors,” is the second single released off the album and is most like Timberlake’s previous albums. Poppy hooks reign supreme on this track—though the song could really do without the last three minutes (and this is coming from someone who will listen to a 30 minute Phish song with glee).

The final song of the album, “Blue Ocean Floor,” which opens with a Radiohead-esque backmasked guitar sound, is a fitting end to Timberlake’s return to glory.  The 70-minute album plays Timberlake out the same way it played him in, with a swirling collection of strings.

The grandiosity and overproduction of some tracks on the album could shy some listeners away. Timberlake, however, is once again showing he can do it all.  He’d made a bold move by jumping headfirst into acting and business entrepreneurship, and now with The 20/20 Experience he’s shown he can move comfortably past pop music and into the realm of neo-soul.

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