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”