The 20/20 Experience
70:02 min • RCA • March 15, 2013
Like many people, I wrote Justin Timberlake off quite early. Hailing from boyband N’Sync (who only really got interesting on their final album) and releasing a standard, all be it good quality, R ‘n’ B-pop debut, I didn’t think he would have much longevity. Yet with the second album Futuresex/Lovesound hit, with its modern electronic take on Prince-esque funk, I saw a different side to Timberlake. It was an album that took risks, however slight, and cemented his relationship with (the often dull) producer Timbaland, which resulted in a killer duo who seemed to make better music together than either of them could on their own. Then … he went into acting, and I lost all hope of another half decent album from him. How wrong I was.
Outside of its context on the album, the first single ‘Suit And Tie’ underwhelmed me, as did second leaked track ‘Mirror’, but I liked his previous work enough to give The 20/20 Experience a go … and I’m glad I did, as it’s one of the best albums of an already brilliant year. Re-imagining Timberlake as a Frankenstein’s monster made up of Fred Astaire, Prince, both of the worthwhile Jackson siblings and alternative soul maverick Jamie Woon, I wasn’t prepared for the sonic thrill my ears were in for when I pressed play on my iTunes to listen to this album.
The first thing you need to know about The 20/20 Experience is it’s relatively uncommercial. Most tracks clock in between 7 and 8 minutes, and evolve through several soundscapes, almost like the extended mixes favoured by the dance and soul artists of the ’80s and ’90s from whom this album takes most of its inspiration.
Opener ‘Pusher Love Girl’, with its ’60s tv theme intro through to its funky Prince influenced groove, sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album. Lyrically it deals with the same metaphors as Justin’s previous hit ‘Lovestoned’ (mainly the idea of love being like drugs), but as ‘Lovestoned’ was probably my favourite thing he’d done to date, that’s not a bad thing. First single ‘Suit And Tie’ follows, and it’s an intoxicating mishmash of sounds and styles. Its got a bubbling, 1960s feel to it. Reminding me of Janet Jacksons brilliant pop theme to the Nutty Professor 2, ‘Doesn’t Really Matter’, within the confines of the album ‘Suit And Tie’ makes perfect sense, and causes me to smile and strut, and glistens in my ears like only pop R ‘n’ B perfection can.
Of course, in his heyday producer Timbaland was always synonymous with R ‘n’ B club tracks, but over the past few years his stye has become over saturated and over stretched, with only Bjork being able to inject new life into his tired formula by writing with him but producing the tracks herself on Volta. So next track ‘Don’t Hold The Wall’ totally blew me away, transporting me to a dark, late night club with walls dripping with sweat and sexual tension. The bare, bass lead latter half of the song, like an extended club mix, grinds the song into perfection, turning it from a 4 minute club banger to a full emotional experience.
The laid back groove of ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’, starting off as a Barry White-esque love song, and quickly descending into a distorted bleep soundscape, all held together by a drum beat that draws you into Justin’s trance. Once again, just as we’re getting comfortable, the music fades and we’re treated to a bossa nova drum that changes the track to something else entirely, and propels us from “erection section” R ‘n’ B to what feels like a jazz club jam. ‘Tunnel Vision’ has a trademark Timbaland beat, and if it wasn’t for the Speed Garage vocal samples that start the song, would probably be the most commercial thing so far … but then, nothing is as it seems, and as the track drops and builds again, the monotony of the Timbaland-by-Numbers production is broken, and his genius shines through.
‘Spaceship Coupe’ bubbles along nicely, and whilst not being a highlight is by no means a low point. The Prince-does-Mowtown of ‘That Girl’ is probably the best actual song we’ve been treated to so far, and its low instrumentation shows that Justin is capable of being captivating underneath Timbaland’s overblown but brilliant soundscapes. ‘Let The Groove Get In’ begins as a modern R ‘n’ B club banger, and evolves into a Michael Jackson homage that is more inspired than it is copycat. Second single, and next track, ‘Mirror’ is the artistic low point of the album. That’s not to say it’s bad – in fact, it’s the total opposite of bad – it’s just a classic Timbaland/Timberlake collaboration, which feels out of place in amongst such a strong and cohesive body of work. The main body of ‘Mirror’ feels like it was written before Justin and Timbaland knew what form the album would take, and then reworked to fit the mould set by everything else. Only its accompanying video (half short film, half Timbacllake being cast as a modern day Fred Astaire if he’d ever worked with Bob Fosse) and the last half of track, where it switches from radio fodder to artistic triumph, saves ‘Mirror’ from Top 40 hell. I’d still rather something a bit more leftfield, but I appreciate its ingenuity – how it draws you in with its overly commercial opening and then spirals into beautiful introspection.
Closing ballad ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ is probably the most interesting track on here, which is no easy feat with such an interesting collection of songs. A haunting ballad, that has more in common with James Blake and Jamie Woon than it does any of America’s R ‘n’ B elite, the sparse but layered music is made up of distorted synths and strings, whilst Justin’s voice floats above the whole thing.
That’s where the album should end, and the standard edition does. The deluxe edition, however, gives us two extra tracks, the dark grind of ‘Dress On’ (the most interesting of the two, largely because it remind me of Black Album era Prince) and the ‘Like I Love You’-alike ‘Body Count’…and whilst they’re fine, neither really fit the album and its no surprise they’re not in the official tracklisting. They will, however, probably please the hoards of commercial pop fans confused by this mature and stylish album, so I suppose thats enough to justify their existence. For me, though, the album will always end with the stunning ‘Blue Ocean Floor’. Anything else is just unwanted noise after that ultimate tranquility.
The 20/20 Experience is probably one of the most impeccably produced albums I have ever heard. It’s not just slick, it’s intricate and beautiful, with a layer of soul that, if you scratch the surface of each song, bleeds through. Like Prince, the lyrics are over sexualised in places, but I don’t see that as a problem. As with the Purple One, there’s a soul to the music itself that oozes into my skin, and reminds me why I often equate good music to drugs. The flawless production on this 70 minute pop opus gives me the same feeling I imagine a hit of an illegal chemical substance might give me. It’s been all I’ve thought about and all I’ve wanted to hear since my first listen, and I’ve seen no signs of that waning.
If there’s one thing that The 20/20 Experience does, is that it points out the limitations of the 3 minute pop song. Taking more risks than a YouTube amateur stuntman, Justin has produced an album that not only moves seamlessly through emotions and intoxicating soundscapes, but also fits together as the most complete work he’s ever released. Judging by the mixed media reaction, who knows if he will ever do something this experimental again, but I can only hope and pray that this is the sound of Timbalake’s future, and it solidifies him as an artist that will be around for a long time. If all you want from pop music is 3 minutes of dancing around and singing along, leave this album on the shelf. If, like me, you think that pop music is perfectly capable of being art, and yearn for the days when the latest Prince or Michael Jackson opus was considered the height of pop sophistication, then you may not stop listening to this for a while … I know I won’t.