I can’t think of a pop star that wouldn’t want to be Justin Timberlake. The guy started off at the absolute lowest point you can reach within pop music: a member of a 1990s teen pop group. Conventional wisdom says that he was destined for breakdowns, ridicule, and irrelevance, but Timberlake beat the odds. His two other albums were well-received with half a dozen major singles between them, and even when he wasn’t in music, he refused to go away (hosted SNL multiple times, roles in movies, general Celebrity Pass). He went from a punchline to one of Hollywood’s most loved men, and when news of a new album hit, the anticipation hit the public like a tidal wave.
And all that public good will culminates with The 20/20 Experience. The 20/20 Experience is ostensibly a pop album, but a sprawling, surprisingly challenging one that takes time to sink in. True, Timberlake is a Pop Star (TM), but he’s not a pop star like anyone from 2008 onward: can you imagine Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, or even Lady Gaga releasing a ten song album running 70 minutes that played more as a cohesive whole than four minute iTunes friendly singles? Or an album that’s shortest song is 4:48, and longest is 8 minutes? All of these are true of The 20/20 Experience.
Longtime Timberlake collaborator Timbaland shows up again as executive producer for this record, but he takes a different approach than his usual here. The album primarily dwells in string and horn heavy R&B and soul with electronic flourishes. It can sound ostentatious and bloated, but in places like opener “Pusher Love Girl”, the strings are sweeping and full of pomp to announce the long-absent star’s return. As mentioned earlier, The 20/20 Experience isn’t a single-friendly album; lead single “Suit & Tie” (one of the stronger cuts here) clocks at 5 and a half minutes, and second single “Mirrors”–the most Timbaland-y cut here with its synths and looped snares–runs at 8 minutes.
“Suit & Tie” is the most singular song here, and even it barely sticks to a pop song structure; the most “pop” thing about it is the luxurious and lazy Jay Z guest verse. The reverb-laden production has size, but the percussion and horn section give the song soem bounce, as well. Jay Z was the perfect choice for the album’s lone guest performance since he’s come to represent the class and elegance that The 20/20 Experience so eagerly caters to. It’s arguable that the album is best experienced as background music to a somewhat upscale party: tailored to a tee, very atmospheric, but doesn’t hold up as well as it could under direct observation.
The songs are all quick to establish a groove that glides along a loose verse-chorus structure, but they rarely build or shift that much outside of their initial set up. For example, “Don’t Hold the Wall” launches a world music beat early on, and keeps almost the exact same music for four and a half minutes without changing much. And then it becomes its own two and a half remix version for a total runtime of seven minutes that feels much longer and inconsequential. The extended outros on over half the songs hear aren’t strictly speaking bad ideas, but they come in right after each song reaches its natural conclusion, and adds surprisingly little. In fact, in some cases (looking at you, “Mirrors” and “Strawberry Bubblegum”), they cripple an otherwise solid tune by needlessly adding a few minutes. The 20/20 Experience is only ten tracks, but feels like fifteen songs including filler.
There’s a small redemption in Timbaland’s varied beats on each song. Even if he repeats himself multiple times, each song still sounds singular. There’s the bounce of “Pusher Love Girl”, the vastness to “Strawberry Bubblegum”, and frantic instrumentation to “Tunnel Vision” that, even if each song is bloated beyond recognition, at least makes for intriguing listening. Then there’s the soul band sound of “That Girl”, which is dangerously cheesy, but kind of adorable anyway, and the late-period Michael Jackson worshipping stomp of “Let The Groove Get In”.
And, of course, Timberlake himself is in fine form on The 20/20 Experience. He’s charismatic, vocally talented, and able to sell the album’s cornier moments, of which there are plenty. As mentioned, “That Girl” might be the single corniest song I hear all year with a sing-song group chorus of “I’m in love with that girl/And she told me/’cuz she’s in love with me”. Even when they lyrics aren’t that simple and silly, they’re not great. Cute charm and likeability have been long selling points for JT, but he sets a landspeed record for number of “I wanna get with you” metaphors over this album. Your his mirror, his cocaine, his heroin, he’ll be your blueberry lollipop if you’ll be his strawberry bubblegum, and he’s got that tunnel vision for you. JT makes it bearable, but lyrics like those to “Spaceship Coupe”–about driving in his spaceship and making love on the moon–are near cringeworthy on paper.
Also cringeworthy is closer “Blue Ocean Floor”, an attempt at programmed, forlorn, arty balladry that sounds pretty for about a minute until you realize that there are six and a half formless minutes ahead. The album succeeds most when it knows what it wants; “Pusher Love Girl”, “Suit & Tie”, the first half of “Mirrors”, and “Strawberry Bubblegum” are the stronger cuts. The rest are plagued to some degree by formlessness and directionlessness (“Don’t Hold the Wall”, “Spaceship Coupe”, and despite the fun, “Let The Groove Get In” are all prime offenders); there just aren’t enough moving parts to justify seven or eight minute songs when they have four or five minutes worth of ideas. I guess there’s something to be said for the artistry and the audacity to try something this big, but The 20/20 Experience ends blurry and muddled with only a few bright spots. Two and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: Justin Timberlake’s back, but in need of some focus on The 20/20 Experience. 2.5/5.