Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

Posted March 20, 2013

Could the title "New Age King of Pop" apply to an artist who last released an album back in 2006? Well, we're about to find out now that Justin Timberlake's long-awaited third studio album The 20/20 Experience has arrived. The 10-track LP includes Platinum-certified lead single "Suit & Tie," which has reached the #1 spot in 32 countries, and follow-up single "Mirrors." Timberlake, who Executive-Produced the album, is joined by longtime collaborators Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley and Rob Knox, as well as Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon and Cocaine 80s' frontman James Fauntleroy.

In support of the album release, Timberlake will be joined by Suit & Tie collaborator (and the lone guest artist on The 20/20 Experience) Jay-Z on the 12-city Legends of the Summer Tour, beginning July 17 in Toronto, Ontario.

The 20/20 Experience Album Review

Music has never seen anyone like Justin Timberlake. No one has ever navigated the path from teen heartthrob to widely respected artist more successfully than Timberlake. While nearly every other child star has either ended up in rehab, struggled to bring their teen fans with them into adulthood, or usually both, JT went from a boy band cutie no one could take seriously (come on now), to an artist even critics couldn't help but praise (FutureSexLoveSounds), to a Hollywood leading man. If you had said in 2000 that I’d one day think Timberlake was legitimately hilarious (Dick in a Box), praising his acting chops (The Social Network), and saying things like “Folks sleep on how dope that My Love joint was,” I would have said you were insane. And yet, here we are.

While it might be tempting to call Justin Timberlake a pop star, and herald the arrival of his new album, The 20/20 Experience, as the return of the Post-MJ King of Pop, that’d be selling him short. The seven years since his last album weren’t a hiatus, they were a deliberate strategy, a campaign to elevate Justin above the music fray, and he succeeded wildly. Sure, he could have packed 20/20 with radio hits, recruited the new “hot” producers and rappers to help make him relevant and young, but that would have only lowered him back down to the pedestrian pop star level he worked so hard to climb out of. Instead, he chose to prove his elite status by making an album no one else could afford to, both literally and figuratively. In an era obsessed with youth, he kept the album strictly grown. In an era with the attention span of a goldfish, he routinely stretched songs out to eight minutes. In other words, he made an album only Justin Timberlake could have made.

In a way the entire album can be epitomized by the lead single, Suit & Tie, a song JT could have alternatively titled “Oh Really, You Think You’re a Star? Let’s See You Go #1 With a Song Like This. Yeah, That’s Why I Thought.” While my reaction to Suit & Tie on the first listen was lukewarm, over time I’ve heated up. Justin’s never had a powerhouse voice, but here the production is perfectly crafted to allow him to coast in and out of the verses; there’s just something about when those horns kick in that makes you feel good. (Side note: Remember when music made you feel good?) At nearly six minutes Suit & Tie is two minutes longer than radio programmers would prefer, but it’s still short compared to the album’s other standout, Mirrors. On Mirrors Timbaland’s preference for electronic layering pairs perfectly with JT’s more organic vocals, resulting in a track that seems destined to become the new go-to “last song at the prom” song. And yes, considering the…um…stakes that are often at play during prom, that’s a compliment.

Speaking of Timbaland, in many ways 20/20 is a comeback album for him as well as JT. When Timbo made FutureSexLoveSounds he was in the midst of a very lucrative transition from hip-hop to pop/rock producer, and hits with Nelly Furtado, One Republic and more cemented his place at the top of the music industry. But the past few years have been unexpectedly unremarkable: his Shock Value II album struggled, his Timbo Thursdays campaign fizzled and it’s becoming increasingly hard to remember his last true hit. His work on 20/20 should serve as a reminder that he’s still a force to be reckoned with, and to help change the idea of what a Timbaland beat sounds like. Unfortunately, the album’s weakest track, Let The Groove In, sounds the most typically Timbo-ish, putting looped samples under deeply layered percussion. But the end effect is oddly cold; ironically the song never really establishes its groove (JT’s bland lyrics don’t help). By contrast Don’t Hold the Wall fares much better, and shows that Timbo still loves Indian-sounding samples, but for a song aimed at prompting a dance frenzy, it’s oddly reserved. If you want the ladies off the wall, it’s probably a good idea not to put them to sleep first.

Instead, Timberlake and Timbaland (Timbalake?) are at their best when they rely more on organic soul than samples. It’s the guitar line on Pusher Love Girl that give the song its appeal, and the keys on the end of Strawberry Bubblegum are what earn it true babymaker status. In short, 20/20 is at its best when Justin’s charisma isn't forced to compete with complex production, and that shouldn't be a surprise. Justin Timberlake has some intangible quality that makes mainstream America open their hearts to him, and that quality is abundant on the album. The man’s clearly always aimed higher than mere music stardom, and now that plan’s finally coming into focus.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted March 20, 2013
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