Justin Timberlake

The 20/20 Experience
March 20, 2013

In preparation for my review I wrote the words ‘lavish’, ‘classy’, ‘clean’, ‘bassy’ and ‘falsetto’ down on a notepad in front of me. I hadn’t actually listened to The 20/20 Experience yet, I was merely preparing myself. The preparation proved to be apt.

Pusher Love Girl – the opener. A vanilla affair that begins with rising West Side Story string arrangements that give way to a funky staccato beat with that unmistakable Timbaland low-end. Lyrics are the regular fare – not having changed much since Justified – “hey, mama” this, “your daddy” that. The soaring production then takes a trajectory that leaves the track smouldering on the ground, while the lyrics turn to a litany and you start wishing somebody would just cut the beat already. It establishes a theme that is explored throughout the rest of the album.

Following pop album convention, track number 2 is lead single Suit & Tie. It throws a sly curveball, opening with a repetitive pitched-down hook in the vein of A$AP Rocky, by the guy who invented the sphere that Rocky so desperately wants to enter. “You ready JT?” asks a voice, and a jumpy, xylophone-accentuated beat drops as JT slides into his Prince falsettos. Jay-Z makes a forgettable cameo rapping a crummy verse about nothing in particular. “Years of distress, tears on the dress / Trying to hide her face with some make-up sex”. “Tell your mother that I love her cause I love you / Tell your father we go farther as a couple”. Huh?

Don’t Hold The Wall is a true highlight, a pounding gamelan beat, trademark 808 bass and a catchy hook whose true creativity lies in popularising a metaphor for not dancing. As is symptomatic of the album as a whole, though, it begins to meander in the middle and follows the uncertain path to the end of the track. The first 3 minutes are solid. There’s something sinister in the beat too. No-one can make having fun sound like serious business quite like JT. But even the gorgeous beat is nothing we haven’t heard before.

It’s concerning that two people who’ve been working together for as long as Timberlake and Timbaland have, and who have so much creative chemistry, can’t seem to push each other into any new and interesting territories. One can almost imagine them, standing beside one another, holding up a large map and awkwardly looking at each other because every location on it has been crossed out in black Sharpie. Been there.

Strawberry Bubblegum – the title tells you everything you need to know, right? “Don’t ever change your flavour ’cause I love the taste / And if you ask me where I wanna go, I say all the way”. Yep, you knew that was coming. “And it all started when she said / Hey, hey, hey, smacking that strawberry bubblegum / You really got me when you said / Hey hey hey, popping that strawberry bubblegum”. This is the kind of music that the Bang Bros put on when they’re trying to sleep with girls that aren’t in the industry.

4 tracks in, it seems Timbaland neglected to load the “hooks” preset into Pro Tools, but it seems that might’ve been intentional. This album isn’t about hooks, or melodies, or singles. It’s about rhythm – beautiful, danceable, excessive, repetitive, really-wish-it-would-end-already rhythm. By the time Tunnel Vision comes around, the dead freight tacked on to every song makes itself very apparent.Each song comes with an extended, polyrhythmic jam session – like Black Sabbath, only the audience for this album isn’t on psychedelics. Or are they? It’s hard to tell.

This is one of the puzzling things about The 20/20 Experience – who is the audience for this album? FutureSex/LoveSounds was 7 years ago. The ‘N Sync fans, tweens before such a word even existed, were well into puberty and Justin was there to corner their market before J.C. Chasez had even booked studio time. Together with Timbaland, Timberlake foretold the next decade of pop music – a debauched, club-optimised, synth-heavy cacophony – and almost a decade later, Timberlake returns to the Gagasphere that he helped seed. His fans are now even older and the new album, while pure JT, is not FutureSex/LoveSounds or a sequel to it. There’s no SexyBack on this one. One wonders who will be filling those arenas for JT to work his ass off for. They certainly won’t be empty.

The 20/20 Experience is a tome of excess — proof that if you’ve got the cash, your 20s can end when you damn well feel like it. But the album’s greatest excess, by far, is its length. There isn’t a track under four minutes and the album is peppered with songs in the 7-minute range. Therein lies the problem. One of the first skills that one develops as a writer is how to craft a simple, declarative sentence. Often your commas should really be full stops, your next sentence should be the beginning of a new paragraph and so on. The leaner your writing, the better, and with an investment of time and toil, you eventually develop the faculties to recognise where you’ve strayed. The same rules should apply to pop music.

There are a couple of solid tracks that don’t subsequently bludgeon themselves to death. That Girl, which lays a subtle electro beat amongst live instrumentation, is reminiscent of the neo-soul of Charles Bradley and The Heavy. JT’s take is silky smooth, with lyrics no dumber than those which the aforementioned have to offer.

The second banger, Let the Groove Get In, is really a poorly-disguised Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. It’s hard to comprehend any scenario in which both Timberlake and his producer weren’t conscious of the resemblance. It’s inescapable. Unexpectedly however, at around the 2:30 mark, it starts dropping hints of its own personality, with a syncopated salsa-infused piano riff. It ends on a glorious note, utilising the piano, keeping its own best interests in mind, accentuating the keys with a chorus of several Justins easing you into the next track.

Timberlake has talent as a pop star, an actor and as a sketch performer, but certainly not as a wordsmith. His metaphors and analogies usually stumble awkwardly, leaving you wondering if it would be rude to cringe. Sometimes the stumbling is cute and well-meaning, like a baby deer taking its first steps: “Aren’t you somethin’ to admire / ’cause your shine is somethin’ like a mirror / And I can’t help but notice / You reflect in this heart of mine”. But most often it’s like that drunk guy at the club, flailing his arms as he dances, who should know by now what that fourth Jagerbomb will do to him: “If you’d be my strawberry bubblegum / Then I’d be your blueberry lollipop”.

But while some of Timberlake’s musings are crude and ham-handed, the man is never starchy or unlikeable. He reminds you of the party host you don’t really know, who doesn’t seem like the brightest chap, but whose charisma and relentless efforts to make you feel at home make you want to stick around and laugh at his awkward jokes.

It’s been said that we should be in awe of the scope and audacity of the music on this album. But if nothing interesting is happening then some violin trills and a sophisticatedly sequenced beat is not going to stupefy the listener. You see, The 20/20 Experience isn’t a poor album, it simply suffers from desperately wanting to be more than the sum of its parts. The ambulant beats and Timberlake’s laid-back professionalism combine to create consistent peaks that ascend above the mire, but The 20/20 Experience is ultimately an Icarian effort.