Album Review: Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience

Justin Timberlake, The 20:20 Experience © RCA


Justin Timberlake dominated the music industry both as a member of boy band ‘NSync and as a solo artist.  Focusing on Timberlake’s solo career, both 2002’s Justified and

2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds were gargantuan affairs. The success garnered commercially also paid off critically, as both efforts received multiple Grammy nominations and were also victorious within the pop categories. Given all of Timberlake’s success, fans have been restless for years, waiting for his follow-up. Unfortunately, fans were made to wait seven years to get ‘sexy back’.  Fortunately, Timberlake returns, can still ‘sang’ (hey he represents Memphis y’all), and he can relieve Justin Bieber as pop male’s goto torchbearer. Cheap shot? Nah! Timberlake > Bieber.

2013’s The 20/20 Experience, the ‘secret album’ is different from both of Timberlake’s previous efforts.  It still possesses Timbaland’s influences/ideas (he also works with Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon), but the affair seems more scattered than Justified or FutureSex.  Like Bruno Mars’s Unorthodox Jukebox, Timberlake experiments with different styles, never keying his focus into one direction.  By taking this approach, there is less overall cohesion, which is both a blessing and a curse at times.  What is clear is that ‘love’ is on Timberlake’s mind, rightfully so.  Most of 20/20 taken by itself is quite alluring, but as a whole the vision is anything but focused musically. Overall, there is more enjoyability to be had by the ear than not, though some of the prolonged durations could have been reduced.  Vocally, Timberlake sounds superb; he handles vocal arrangements and vocal production.

The 20/20 Experience

“Pusher Lover Girl” made it debut at the 2013 Grammy Awards.  The opening string run is reminiscent of Barry White’s famous string flurry on “Love’s Theme” in idea (not a carbon copy).   From the onset, one deciphers the direction is pop-soul.  Timberlake delivers commandingly, comparing his lady to a pusher man (“Hey little mama / ain’t gotta ask me if I want to / tell me, can I get a light? / Roll you up and let it run through my veins…”). On the chorus, Timberlake’s falsetto shines as he tells his girl “…So gon on and be my dealer baby…cause all I want is you baby…”  Much like FutureSex/LoveSound, the end of the eight minute cut is a breakdown section.  As an album opener, it is definitely a contrast to more tempo-savvy numbers “Señorita” or “Futuresex/LoveSound.” That said, perhaps a quicker number might have been better served to open the effort.

“Suit & Tie” featuring Jay-Z gives The 20/20 Experience tempo and provides the listener with familiar territory as the promo single.  The beginning of the cut is in chopped-n-screwed fashion, with Timberlake stating “I be on my suit and tie shit / can I show you a few things…let me show you a few things.” The groove opts for sunny sounding pop soul, and Timberlake ‘eats it up’ playing up all things schmaltzy. Regardless, his falsetto continues to impress and his performance has a swagger about it.  Jay-Z comes along for the ride, but even months since the release of “Suit & Tie”, Timberlake holds it down without Hov.  Kanye West wasn’t too hot on the track, but ya know…

“Don’t Hold The Wall” proceeds delivering a simple message for the ladies to ‘dance’ – don’t be a wallflower.  Timbaland does the honors on the repetitive hook: “Dance, don’t hold the wall…” The beat is percussive – ‘tribal’ sounding if you will.  By the end, the cut transforms with the beat channelling more of a dance-pop/urban beat.  The tacked on ‘breakdown’ section is a bit much, delivering a cut over seven minutes. “Strawberry Bubblegum”, a stronger cut, swells the duration to eight minutes.  Very much in a modern R&B/pop vein, the sound could be characterized as synthesized and low-key.  Once again paying ode to love (and likely his wife), Timberlake’s love-centricity continues: “Cause she’s just like nothing / that I ever seen before / baby please don’t change nothing / because your flavors original…”

“Tunnel Vision” features stomping drum programing – some of the hardest beats of the effort.  The sound is very much stablished in urban/hip-hop sound.  Even given the harder edge of the beats, Timberlake goes all ‘soft’, stating “I got that tunnel vision for you…I only see you…” The results are one of 20/20’s best. Timberlake’s vocals are beautiful and well produced, even finding him singing some in his lower register.  As for buddy Timbaland? His influence is all over this cut, epitomized during the rhythmic “zoom, zoom, zoom…in on you…” Timberlake, knowing he’s succeeded in wooing her at the end confirms it: “I know you like it…”

“Spaceship Coupe” continues to exhibit Timberlake’s ripe falsetto, slowing things down, anchored by thudding drums.  Contemporary R&B at its best, “Spaceship Coupe” is

definitely a cut that The-Dream wishes he’d penned and placed on one of his albums.  “That Girl” moves from contemporary R&B to neo-soul, featuring a sample from King Sporty (“Self Destruct”).  In additional to the sample, the cut features horns by The Regiment.  Timberlake continues to conquer love: “Cause I’m in love with that girl / so don’t be mad at me…so what if you’re from the other side of the tracks, so what if the world don’t think we match / I’ll put it down like my love’s on wax, guess what / I’m in love with that girl / and she told me, she’s in love with me…” Unlike other cuts, “That Girl” keeps the length conservative, at under five minutes.

After the slower tempos of “Spaceship Coupe” and “That Girl”, JT speeds things up on the electrifying “Let The Groove Get In”. An amalgamation of Latin, pop, and dance influences, “Let The Groove In” is completely different from anything else. It also gets a lift from sample “Alhamduillaahi” from Explorer Series: Africa-Burkina Faso: Rhythms of the Grasslands.  The hook is addictive (“Are you comfortable right there, right there? Let the groove get in there, right there”) and the groove is as sensational as advertised by the title. “Let The Groove Get In” makes one question why it didn’t serve as the opener as opposed to “Pusher Lover Girl”. Oh well.

Mirrors”, the second single from The 20/20 Experience straddles the lines between pop and urban music.  Timberlake lead vocal continues to sound exceptional, supported by slick production work, beautifully harmonized backing vocals, and lovely strings provided by The Benjamin Wright Orchestra.  The amorous message is as beautiful as this standout, conveyed through the quick-paced vocals of the chorus: “Cause I don’t wanna lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me / the vacancy that sat in my heart / is a space that now you hold / show me how to fight for now

/ and I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy / coming back to into you once I figured it out / you were right here all along / it’s like you’re my mirror / my mirror staring back at me…”  Very nice.

Closing cut “Blue Ocean Floor” is the effort’s most mysterious one.  Timberlake continues his emphasis of love, poetically: “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore / and I can’t hear you through the white noise / just send your heartbeat I’ll go to the blue ocean floor / where they find us no more / on that blue ocean floor…” The vibe is creative and appropriately placed at the end of the album, but feels a bit too indulgent and ponderous.

Final Evaluation

Overall, The 20/20 Experience is both enjoyable and flawed – sort of an oxymoron.  Timberlake unifies thematically (love), but stylistically is more discombobulated.  In layman’s terms – it’s all over the place. Vocally he punches, even when his lyrics/themes of songs are somewhat schmaltzy.  Generally, a pop album that goes ten tracks deep isn’t expected to run 70 minutes as this one does, which is a bit of a detraction. The tacked on ‘breakdown’ section appearing on nearly every cut is much more predictable here than on FutureSex/LoveSound, which is now seven years old.  The question is, then, do the pros outweigh the cons? The answer is yes! Unfocused it may be, The 20/20 Experience not only returns Justin Timberlake, but it provides enough ear candy to satisfy ultimately.

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