[Music Review]The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake

I hate Justin Timberlake.

Or at least I used to, though to be fair, I think every teenage boy did in 1997 when he was fronting N*Sync and every teenage girl was in love with his white-boy fro and his falsetto.  I warmed up to him as the boy band craze was really hitting its stride and the No Strings Attached album dropped.  By that time, the fro was more under control and no longer featured those frosted tips.  But it wasn’t until N*Sync broke up and Timberlake dropped Justified in 2002 that I started to actually like him. 

Justified marked Timberlake’s solo entrance to the music world and early adulthood.   This was still heartthrob JT, with Britney Spears on his arm writing songs that any 21-year old male would love to use as an excuse to rock his body next to a pretty seniorita.  It was fun, and it was young.  Timberlake followed Justified with the critically acclaimed Futuresex/Lovesounds, debuting a more mature Justin, with experimental beats that you had to really listen to in order to get them.  The album was about discovery, appropriate for the then 25-year old JT.  Which leads us to the The 20/20 Experience, easily Timberlake’s most mature offering; it’s an album that finds Timberlake comfortable with who he is and the music he wants to create.

What you’re getting with The 20/20 Experience is pretty well exemplified by its first single, “Suit & Tie.”  Like suit and tie, the album is a combination of soul and traditional pop, a hybrid Timberlake has been perfecting since he began his solo career.  From the use of heavy brass that harkens back to classic soul cuts like Billy Paul’s “Me & Mrs. Jones” to the average track length of over five minutes, 20/20 Experience is mature and familiar, while still infusing all the modern touches of 2013.  It’s obvious from the outset that producer extraordinaire Timbaland has his fingers on this album, as the electronic backbeats in many of the songs help to accompany all those classic horn sounds.

While “Suit & Tie” may be a great snapshot of the album as a whole, and the second single “Mirrors” gives us a look at how Timberlake is able to craft a listenable and familiar eight minute pop track, neither is the best effort on the album.  That honor goes to “Blue Ocean Floor,” a meticulously crafted seven minute ballad infused with electronica and Timberlake’s vocals driving force.  We’ve seen Timberlake use his vocals as the backbone of a song before ( Justified’s “Never Again,” FS/LS’s “All Over Again”), but never have they been as strong as on “Blue Ocean Floor.”  The song is beautiful and a bit melancholy, and it sounds very little like anything Timberlake has done before.  I think that disconnect from his previous work may be jarring to some, but give it a chance.  It’s the one song from that album that I keep going back to.

That isn’t to say there aren’t other solid cuts.  That’s simply not true.   “Pusher Love Girl,” the opening track of the album, is a sweet, sweeping, old-school soul effort where Timberlake rocks his falsetto in first class fashion.  Like “Suit & Tie,” it’s a great example of Timberlake’s very specific brand of neo-soul.  “Strawberry Bubblegum,” while not as reminiscent of classic soul music, is much the same.  Kicking off with a bass introduction that would make Barry White proud, it’s a playful effort that is catchy and will most likely find its way to the radio. Coupled with single-ready “Tunnel Vision” and the jubilant, clearly-Timbland inspired “Body Count,” there are no less than five legitimate singles on this album.  I think “Body Count” is going to be incredibly popular at the clubs.  It’s fast paced, is classic Timberlake, and is going to take to remixes very well.  Even the “southern soul shout out’ to his hometown, “That Girl,” is an enjoyable effort that, while not overwhelming, is nice to listen to.

“Let the Groove In” is The 20/20 Experience’s only real weak point.  It’s upbeat and competent, but the salsa/tribal vibe it’s infused with isn’t anywhere as successful as Justified’s “Seniorita.”  The song meanders, is pretty redundant, and it’s overwhelmingly forgettable.   It’s also way too long at seven minutes, but is the only real low of the entire album.  Which is funny considering the title, as every other album on 20/20 Experience finds Timberlake clearly hitting his groove.

I don’t know if The 20/20 Experience is going to be as critically acclaimed as FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it deserves to be.  The album is soulful and thoughtful, and finds Timberlake at clear ease with his music and himself.  Reminiscent of classic 70s soul infused with distinctly Timberlake/Timbaland beats, it takes the recipe developed in that album and refines it, puts a suit and tie on it, and gives you what I’ll call a quintessential Timberlake experience.  It’s exactly the album I’ve been looking for since 2006, and at this point I’m not ashamed to admit it.

I love Justin Timberlake.

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