Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’ – Review

24 Mar

Justin Timberlake has been busy over the past six and a half years; he’s appeared in thirteen moves, hosted SNL five times, married Jessica Biel and saved Myspace. He’s been busy doing everything other than what he does best – making music. When I asked an 11 year old if she was excited about the  comeback of this one time teen-idol she looked at me blankly; her generation have only ever known Timberlake as an actor, she didn’t even know about his other career. The sheer amount of time between his last album and this one is made even more apparent when you turn on the radio. Timberlake has always flirted with r&b (which is currently in fine health outside the mainstream) but he’s pure pop all the way to the bank, and pop music is in dire straights. There is nothing out there that comes close to matching the sophistication, sleakness or maturity of  ‘Cry Me a River’, ‘My Love’ or ‘Sexyback’. Timberlake’s co-producer and one time hot-young-thing Timbaland has been relegated to the sidelines in a world where your Perrys, Beibers, Gagas and One Directions would rather turn to the cheap, bland and predictable to make hits that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Even the classier Beyonce and Rihanna wouldn’t give a single producer/auteur the room to oversee an over album these days, it’s just not a viable option.

It reminds me of the position Michael Jackson was in 25 years years ago, just before the release of his third album, ‘Bad’. Heads rolled when it was announced that Jackson would be teaming up with the already ancient (by pop standards) Quincy Jones, AGAIN, five long years after ‘Thriller’. But as Jackson demonstrated, wise old heads are sometimes worth their weight in gold. He confirmed this a few years later when instead he went with a string of young gun slingers like Teddy Riley and Rodney Jerkins for the follow-up to ‘Bad’ – the far less pleasing ‘Dangerous’.

Like ‘Bad’ the ’20/20 Experience’ is a stylish, groovy, ambitious pop record that feels more cohesive and consistent than his previous records despite lacking runaway classic singles. People longing for another ‘My Love’ will no doubt be disappointed that there is nothing on here in that league but surely the sexy and smart ‘Suit and Tie’ will do (even with the throwaway Jay Z rap)? ‘Mirrors’ may not quite be a match for ‘What Goes Around’ but it’s still the best thing you’re going to hear on commercial radio this decade. There’s precious little else that would make it on to a radio playlist though – in fact all but two of these songs clock in at over eight minutes long, and they use that length to brilliant effect. Opener ‘Pusher Love Girl’ begins with a swell of strings and smoothly melts into a heart-warming blend of philli-soul vocals and classic Timbaland beats. The final two minutes revolve around Timberlake repeating the hook ‘I’m just a j-j-j-junkie for your love’ and his voice sounds like cotton candy. ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ builds quietly and slowly over that time into an impressive climax that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Keane’s ‘Hopes and Fears’ or even Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’. In between these songs there is an hour’s worth of key changes, tempo switches, breakdowns, codas, interludes and genre experiments to swoon over. All the while Timberlake never loses sight of his pop goals, even if his voice is occasionally relegated to a bit player in what is often Timbaland’s show (as on the musically innovative ‘Don’t Hold the Wall’ and ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’).

lyrically the album’s a whole lot less sophisticated, but always fun and ambitious. The songs act as extended metaphors in which Timberlake’s eyes become camera lenses, his car becomes a spaceship and (at various points) his lover becomes a mirror, strawberry bublegum and pretty much every drug you can name. Compared to the poetry of Frank Ocean, or even the provocative lyricism of The Weekend or Usher, the lyrics on ’20/20′ sound a bit tame and unexciting but there is still a lot of fun to be had here. It’s a complete bore who doesn’t find enjoyment in ‘Suit and Tie’s sing-along chorus (not quite a match for ‘I’m bringing sexy back’) or ‘Pusher Love Girl’s ludicras comparisons (‘You’re my heroine, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA’).

QuestLove recently said that Timberlake asked him ‘why do we put all of our power in the hands of 18 year olds? I wanted to make a joint that 40 year olds would love too’. He’s achieved this goal, but at the same time he’s made a very contemporary record. Timberlake nods to the present day without indulging in the excess of dubstep inflected pop. The vocal samples on ‘Tunnelvision’ remind me of M.I.A and the beats sound *just right*. The breakdowns on ‘Strawberry Bublegum’ and ‘Let the Groove’ also sound very 2013 without pandering to a pre-teen audience. Meanwhile, period details take you back to neglected times in music, whether it’s Motown and the 1960’s, N-Sync and the 90’s or Timbaland and the 00’s – all these elements gel together to make an album that feels almost like a living, breathing, history of pop music. ’20/20 Experience’ is an album that takes the best bits of yesterday, the best bits of today and will survive long into the future. With a sequel promised for later in the year, it looks like Timberlake’s could be the most assured comeback of recent times.

9/10

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