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ALBUM REVIEW: Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2

Are you Experienced?

Are you Experienced?

Stream The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2 via iTunes.

Just a six months ago, Justin Timberlake blasted onto the Billboard 200 at #1 with The 20/20 Experience, selling 968,000 copies in its first week. As if this wasn’t enough, now he delivers a second album this year, the second half of that Experience. Unlike its partner in crime, The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2, is a more contemporary affair, filled with a much more hard-hitting urban sound rather than the breezy nature of the last album. Still, there are a few lighter numbers and pretty love songs to appease you. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

On the A side:

  • C-C-C-Changes in Genres: The most notable change between these two eras is that there’s a little more experimenting of this half, which results in a mixed bag. One of the standouts is “Drink You Away”, with its poppy-sounding arrangement that verges on late 60’s/early 70’s psychadelic music, particularly with the prominent organ. However, Timberlake also seems to channel a Raphael Saadiq/D’Angelo style vocal as he sings, “I can’t drink you away/On these rocks, I can’t swim/Out of this skin I’m living in.” “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” is essentially the “Don’t Hold The Wall” of this album, with an animalistic feel and spacey vibe out of the 90’s, complete with samples of elephants and birds, oh my. No wonder that he, himself, wants to get animal: “Take me to your jungle, I’m not afraid… come here, gimme what I don’t know/I want.” I also enjoy the reggae influence and knocking beat on “Only When I Walk Away”, as well as the pop/rock “Not A Bad Thing”, which is the direction Timberlake should be going in in the future.
  • Dark Side of the Tune: Timberlake and Timbaland work best on some of the darker ditties, which seems to be a common theme at least on the first half of this. “True Blood” is a modern-day take on Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller”, an air of mystery surrounding it. The nine-and-a-half minute song is too long (it held my attention for the first five minutes) but it does several things really well, including that prominent guitar solo and the eerie violin reversed for even more effect. Timberlake attempts to do his best Vincent Price (I give it a C), but it is one of the more inviting songs on the album and is perfect with Halloween next month. In the same way, “Murder”, featuring Jay Z, is a hot banger flourished with the occasional brass boost. Yet, its lyrics are rooted in an evil woman on the prowl: “Ooh, that girl is murder/Everybody get down.” The rap break is actually enjoyable too, as Jay name-checks John Lennon, Yoko Ono and The Beatles. These are probably the two most inspired and best-sounding tracks on here and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them becomes a single at one point.
  • Vulnerability on Vinyl: Saying that Timberlake thinks highly of himself is an understatement. Now, whether you call that confidence or cockiness, I’ll leave that up to you. However, it is nice to see him leave that on the back burner enough to be a little sensitive. Ballad “You Got It On” shows this tenderness off nicely, which verges into R. Kelly‘s steppin’ songs for a hot minute, but is also very much Timberlake. It’s a little old school for his younger listeners, but at the same time, it’s a heartfelt ode dedicated to his wife, Jessica Biel. The same is true of hidden track “Pair Of Wings”, with an understated guitar and vocal arrangement, a nice change of pace as Timberlake goes down the James Taylor/Jim Croce route. No wonder it isn’t listed just because it’s so different. He coos, “We keep getting older, the world keeps getting colder/Tell me when did we lose our way? … But if I had one wish, I know what I’d wish for/There’s only one thing that would do/I’d fly away on this pair of wings with you.” Hello! It’s sentimental enough without getting too cheesy. That’s the way to do it.

On the flip side:

  • Tiring of Timbaland (and Timberlake): The main criticism of this album, and I think enough people have already picked up on this, is that the Timbaland production sound is already starting to get really old and isn’t too much different from what we were hearing on FutureSex/LoveSounds back in 2006. “TKO” could have been on there; same with “Murder”, as well as “Amnesia”. It’s tired. There’s nothing new to discover. It’s likable to an extent, especially “Murder”, but some of these songs sound so phoned in that it’s frustrating. Timberlake’s songwriting is also not where it needs to be at this point in his career, and although it’s never been his strongest suit, there are some cringeworthy lines that just ruin the experience. This is a line in the song “Cabaret”: “I got you saying Jesus so much, it’s like we’re laying in a manger.” That’s an actual lyric, people. Stop the madness and stop getting trying to get your sexy on, you two. Go ‘head, be gone with it.
  • Song That Go Too Long: The interludes. Cut the interludes already. Some of them, especially the one on “True Blood” which extends it over nine minutes, are unnecessary and clog up the album. I don’t want to go on for too long about this since I already complained enough about it on the first album, but really? Since when do album cuts nowadays go six, seven, even nine minutes in length? I guess I wouldn’t have a problem with the concept so much if the ones on this album had some substance and weren’t just for show. You can still be a real artist without making things crazy long. I know Timberlake’s made some comments in the past about figuring out the single edits after the album is done, but why not be more conscious about it in the process? I’m just glad that this isn’t going to be a trend. Otherwise, everyone would be zoning out sooner rather than later.
  • RCA = Really Can’t Articulate (A Strategy): This whole era had some major problems which I think prevented it from being just a little bit bigger than it could’ve been. First of all, whomever decided to rush release a second part of the album in September to get it eligible for the GRAMMY Awards only to find that RCA didn’t submit the individual packages as entries and bundled them up needs to be canned. Whenever that person decided that, you ultimately didn’t factor in that “Take Back The Night” would be treated as a third radio single and not a first, and because of the hesitance radio had with “Suit & Tie” for a number of weeks before it went top ten because of the sound, it was doomed from day one. “TKO” is a forgettable followup single that, again, radio can’t behind fully because your editing skills need some improvement. Then again, maybe the men behind the song are responsible for that. Also, what was with not releasing the radio edits, or 7″ edits if we’re truly talking, of the songs digitally? Those single sales would’ve been so much higher. I could go on and on, but man, if only I was in charge… I guess I’ll have to daydream away on that one.

Verdict: At this point, I’m not ready to make a call on which of these two albums is the stronger half, but I guess I’ll sum it up this way: this may be The 20/20 Experience, but the vision is still cloudy. If having 20/20 vision means you have a normal vision, then with all the blurring of music tastes wrapped in two albums, I’m totally lost. This isn’t even a half-throwback, half-modern sort of album. Both parts of the era are so equally unbalanced and unfortunately, on the whole, that leaves this Experience as less than satisfying in the end result. Don’t get me wrong, this album is still worth a listen and purchase for everything that does it right. There are some really well-constructed songs. Next time around, however, I would suggest that Timberlake works with other producers and focuses on writing more quality material than leaving it up to the arrangers and musicians to save these songs. It was a nice try, it really was, but pack that top hat and shined shoes away for a while after the tour is over. You won’t realize it now, but we’ll all be thanking you for it later.

Download: “Drink You Away”, “Murder” (featuring Jay Z), “Pair Of Wings”, “Take Back The Night”, “True Blood”

Stream The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2 via iTunes.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience

He's a Soul survivor.

He’s a Soul survivor.

Stream The 20/20 Experience via iTunes.

Listen to singles “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors”.

Hungry for some new tunes from Justin Timberlake? You may as well call this stoned soul picnic, because he’s ready to serve it down. The 20/20 Experience is Timberlake’s first album in nearly seven years and he’s ready to bring SoulBack this time around. With a lush orchestra, production by his pal Timbaland, and a fresh falsetto, it certainly sounds good on paper. Is the Experience worth it? Read my review and let me know your thoughts on the album.

On the A side:

  • Authenticity: Call it what you want: Blue-eyed soul, white soul… Timberlake is an expert at the sub-genre. Not only can he execute a contemporary urban sound, but he’s also able to transform his image back to the 70’s and give the listener an authentic old-school R&B recording. Whether it’s shades of Al Green and Prince found in “Pusher Love Girl”, a near-sample of The Stylistics‘ “You Are Everything” at the end of “Spaceship Coupe” (it actually samples “Baby Let’s Rap Now” by The Moments, see below), the blissful Staple Singers inspired “That Girl” or the Michael Jackson‘s Off The Wall flavor in “Let The Groove Get In”, he knows his roots and displays them without disappointment. You’re certainly going to be enraptured in this LP if you’re a fan of the Motown sound and the fuller arrangements of that era. While songs like the two more obvious singles, “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors”, as well as the jungle fever of potential club-banger “Don’t Hold The Wall”, don’t exactly follow this formula, they mesh well enough to be enjoyed by a wider audience. It’s a good balance in terms of eras and paying homage to them through Timberlake’s artistry. It’s an artist’s record. That’s something that a lot of people can’t say they did.
  • Timbaland’s back: Just when we thought he was over, ding dong, here comes Timbaland knocking at the door. This is probably the most creative he’s been as a producer since at least Shock Value II, but definitely since FutureSex/LoveSounds. There’s something about this combination of he and Timberlake that really produces some magic. All his beats are on point. I can’t really think of a track that I dislike entirely. He’s best with his more modern-sounding affairs like the electronic “Strawberry Bubblegum”, the classic “Tunnel Vision” and the poppy “Mirrors”. It’s a step in the right direction for the producer, who hasn’t seen any big action on the charts in years. Will this help put him back as the most sought-after producer and arranger out there? Time will tell. It won’t be as easy for him this time around, but I’m sure he’ll be putting in a few more hours at the office.
  • It’s all in the details: I guess the ironic thing about The 20/20 Experience is that its title is misleading. Though it would imply that it gives you a complete vision of something, it actually doesn’t, which isn’t bad at all. It has to do with the idea of the background instrumentation and the amount of layers in each song. You’re bound to miss something along the way on the first listen, but identify it on the second listen. It may be the crescendo of a string section, a key change or a beat-boxing moment that you didn’t realize was there before. This notion will probably be a little more obvious with a physical edition of the album, especially a version on vinyl with its enhanced sound quality. There are highs and lows out there that you still haven’t picked up on yet. It’s really neat.

On the flip side:

  • Song Length: This is probably the biggest reaction to the album, but on the standard edition, only one song is under five minutes in length. (The two bonus tracks on the deluxe edition from Target are just under it.) This isn’t something new; in fact, a lot of his prior album, FutureSex/Love Sounds, had the same sort of interludes and extended outros in the song structure. However, that album didn’t seem to drag as much as this one does. The twelve tracks on that album ran a little over 66 minutes compared to the ten tracks on this album that run about 70. Point is, with seven tracks over seven minutes long, this is not an album for the typical pop consumer. It gives it a pretentious and unlikable quality, as if he and Timbaland purposely wanted to extend songs just for the hell of it. I mean, come on now, I could have used an extra track or two. Queen and Pink Floyd may have made long songs, but not on every single album of theirs. I’d like to think Timberlake, as a pop artist, has an obligation to record some radio-ready material that’s actually radio-ready in all aspects, from sound to length, on something that’s commercially available to the masses, even if it’s going to be a largely artist-driven album. That isn’t present there. Maybe he thinks an exclusively R&B singer now. Who knows?
  • Lack of Uptempo Songs: Perhaps more puzzling to me is the choice to provide us with a collection of songs that are slower and midtempo numbers. “Let The Groove Get In” is essentially the only uptempo, fast and furious song on here, and thus, it’s one of the highlights for me. It’ll likely be the third single just because it genuinely sounds like a pop hit, albeit with a radio edit. I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind it, but it definitely contributes to the snail’s pace of the album. There should have been a few more to break things up, but the sequencing as it is doesn’t work for me right now. “Blue Ocean Floor” is confusing as a final glimpse of the album; it’s a good song in itself, but after so many long and drawn-out ballads, do I really need to hear another one? It should’ve at least been a mid-tempo song, or even a reprise of “Pusher Love Girl” for all I care. Instead, this Titanic of an album aptly ends with a few gurgles of water and a sinking ship.
  • Timberlake as a Lyricist: Just… stop. “Spaceship Coupe”? Really? I think one of the big issues I have with the album is that it totally relies on Timbaland‘s production, which is fantastic, but the words themselves are just not doing it for me. Now, granted, he won’t ever be Bob Dylan, but there’s nothing I’m particularly invested in with it comes to Timberlake’s lyrics. He can basically sing anything and get away with it. I wish there were more stories behind the songs, or at least a little more personal reflection on his behalf. It’s sort of all been said before, and even when he tries to be a little more inventive, it comes off as flimsy.

Verdict: Though the album is a cohesive effort that Timberlake wanted to make, I don’t know if it was necessarily worth the seven-year wait for his fans. The hype behind it will lead to some strong opening weeks, but beyond that, a lack of mainstream single choices will probably bring it down. The dated sound and song lengths don’t help either. If the album is meant to appeal to an older audience, then it’s achieved its goal. If the album is meant to bring an urban revival to popular music for all other artists to follow, I don’t see that happening. Maybe some acts will include a more big band sound in their tracks, but they surely won’t run more than four or five minutes and the pop audience will get tired of them quickly before moving back to bubblegum and electro-pop. Personally, I enjoyed the effort. As I mentioned before, it’s a detail-oriented release, so you won’t necessarily have the same Experience during the first listen as you will during the second. He shines when he shines, but it’s not the same as the days of *NSYNC or Justified. The 20/20 Experience isn’t a complete mastering of a concept album, but it’s as close as he’s going to get, so it should be celebrated for what it does right. After all, it’s not every day that a Justin Timberlake solo album comes to rock ‘n’ soul.

Download: “Mirrors”, “Pusher Love Girl”, “Tunnel Vision”

Stream The 20/20 Experience via iTunes.

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SINGLE REVIEW: Justin Timberlake featuring Jay-Z – “Suit And Tie”

It suits him well.

It suits him well.

You may as well call this a zoot suit riot. It’s finally here, the new single from Justin Timberlake, “Suit And Tie”, featuring rapper Jay-Z.  Understandably, the traffic to Timberlake’s website is a little heavy at the moment, but we’ve got your hookup to the hotness that is, by far, the most anticipated track of 2013 thus far.

Before I start, kudos once again to the various members of Pulse Music Board who put the puzzle pieces together (Follow the madness here) and came up with the correct titles for both the single and album title names for Timberlake’s new releases. Special thanks to Kurt Trowbridge who put up an amazing post on his blog, which you can see by clicking on his name. Really neat stuff that proved to be entirely right in the end!

Timberlake has of course been a huge success on the national surveys ever since he started in the boy band *NSYNC; he had at least one top-40 hit per year from 1998-2010. In recent years, his presence on the charts has lessened considerably, mainly due in part to the singer’s focus on acting and developing some of his own acts on his label Tennman Records, including Esmée Denters and FreeSol. (None of them have been big successes to date in the States, though his collaboration with Matt Morris and Charlie Sexton, a version of “Hallelujah” performed at the Hope For Haiti Now telethon, became a digital hit.) His last significant radio single was a feature on Jamie Foxx‘s “Winner”, which peaked at #27 on CHR radio in May 2010. It also featured rapper T.I., but it’s long faded from the airwaves. Now, Timberlake is back in action with this first single from his forthcoming third solo album, The 20/20 Experience.

The song was written by Timberlake, Timbaland, Jay-Z, Jerome Harmon and James Flauntleroy. Harmon’s worked with a number of acts since 2007, from Ashlee Simpson to Chris Cornell. Fauntleroy was a co-writer behind “No Air” by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown, as well as one of the last hits Timberlake featured on, “Love, Sex, Magic” by Ciara.

“Suit” is very much an old-school record inspired by the early 70’s R&B sound, from the funky horn section to Timberlake’s sweet and tender vocals. It’s like a mixture of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye vocally with the explicitness lyrically of a Barry White record. At a hefty 5:28, the version on iTunes will be used as the album version, while a radio edit will chop it down a bit. It starts off with a slow section combining Timberlake’s vocals and Timbaland’s production, stopping about forty seconds in with a clear break. Timbaland questions: “Wait a minute. Are you ready, JT?” That’s an affirmative. (This part is cut out on the radio edit, thank goodness. It’s like what Timbaland tried to do with “4 Minutes” by extending Madonna and Timberlake’s song to a length of 4:04 with a non-event intro and outro. Keep it short and simple, please.)

Timberlake is in the mood for some steady romancing crooning that he “can’t wait to get [her] on the floor”. She’s a fiesty one who burns him to the touch and “ain’t nothin’ but a little doozy when she does it,” but he proceeds with his lady because, as he states in the chorus, “love is swingin’ in the air tonight/Let me show you a few things”. She may be dangerous for the “innocent” character in Timberlake, but “she’s all mine.” Yet, this is no casual romance. Oh, no, no, not for Mr. Timberlake, who is “fixed up to the 9’s” and “all dressed up in black and white”, matching the perfectly picked-up out dress by his female cohort. How sizzling! All of this is against a really dreamy sounding arrangement which really goes a nice job of combining both the classic soul sound with some up-to-date techniques, like the steady drum machine line and the multi-layered instruments.

At 3:14, the bark of an order from JT: “Get out your seat, HOV!” Hey, look, it’s Jay-Z on this record! His flow is solid as usual, proclaiming, “This is trouble season/Time for tuxedos for no reason.” It’s another part of what makes this track so sensual, and even though it’s probably the most current thing about this dated-sounding record, it actually isn’t too bad. In fact, this is probably the most I’ve liked a song featuring the rapper in at least two or three years. Is it an essential part of the song? Perhaps not, but it for sure works. Timberlake’s vocals are done for the most part by the 4:48 mark, ending with a really pretty mixture of drums, keyboards, horns and a little bit of steel drum as if you’ve been whisked away into paradise for five-and-a-half minutes. This guy is good.

So, yes, I’m in love, for now at least. It’s a more mature sound for the former boy bander; the only potential problem I see is that a younger audience may not connect with it since it’s not particularly kid-friendly. The Urban audience may also write this off as a Robin Thicke reject, but who cares? Justin Timberlake is back, and praise the Lord that this isn’t an electro-pop dance song like the majority of the material on CHR radio today. It’s a game changer, just like “SexyBack” was in 2006. The song will easily debut high on the CHR chart on the weekend’s update, which is perfect timing given that it will also be the fifteenth anniversary of *NSYNC‘s debut single, “I Want You Back”, hitting the top 40 on the same chart. Will the song be able to score the biggest debut digital sales frame of all-time? We’ll have to see, but the buzz behind it is immense. Look out below!

For more singles reviews and music news, follow us here at POP! Goes The Charts and my personal Twitter handle: @AdamFSoybel.

Buy “SUIT & TIE” on iTunes. (Album version)

(If you’re interested in a solo radio version without Jay-Z, you can contact me on here or on Twitter.)

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