Music has tried to move on from Justin Timberlake. As great a pop auteur as FutureSex/LoveSounds proved he was, the fact remains that he has spent the past few years trying to turn “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” into a legitimate acting career, while Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and others have done interesting things and largely reclaimed R&B from its need for pop megastardom (although Miguel would probably like to fill the void Timberlake left behind).
The 20/20 Experience ignores the seven years that have passed since Timberlake’s last album and picks up where FutureSex/LoveSounds left off. Timbaland is still very much on board – it’s as much his album as it is Timberlake’s – and the pair act as if nothing has changed. There are no concessions to what pop is these days – no dubstep collaborations, no hip outside producers and only one track under five minutes. No, JT earned the right to do whatever he wants a long time ago, and he retains supernova status in an increasingly fragmented pop world in which starlets clamour and beg for the sort of celebrity he has attained.
First single ‘Suit & Tie’, in addition to boasting the line most likely to inspire a whole series of Jezebel articles (“Try to hide her face with some make-up sex”), is an extremely tight, brass-laden ode to dressing well that pitches Timberlake’s voice an octave higher than usual. The augmented string section and lengthy running time are characteristic of The 20/20 Experience as a whole, but the song is essentially irresistible, establishing that the Timberlake-Timbaland partnership can still bury chart-topping sensibility amid their loftier pretensions.
‘Don’t Hold the Wall’ mixes an afrobeat sample with a tale of dancefloor escapades and stands out from the rest of 20/20 for such daring. The album is otherwise composed of the same orchestral, funk and soul elements, but the sound is also a lot cleaner and stripped of FutureSex‘s overcompensatory faux-futuristic streak. Opener ‘Pusher Love Girl’ begins with a saccharine orchestral swell taken from an old Hollywood score and repurposes it with an electronic groove, stabbing bass and some vocoder samples, while ‘Let the Groove Get In’ has a slick sheen with a tribal energy to it that Timberlake works hard to match.
Lyricism has never been Timberlake’s strong suit – FutureSex centrepiece ‘Losing My Way’ always worked in spite of the opening couplet, “Hi, my name’s Bob and I work at my job” – and he’s largely restricted to banal verses on midnight lust and a few ridiculous love metaphors. ‘Mirrors’, however, gives a glimpse into the life of JT, the married man, and amounts to a heartfelt appreciation of love rediscovered, even if the stadium-sized guitars perhaps overemphasise this romantic breakthrough.
The majority of The 20/20 Experience attempts a grand deconstruction of its own most popular, base elements in a protracted exploration of rhythm that Timberlake and Timbaland are all too keen on. It really lacks showstopping moments such as the cascading, juttering synth line of ‘My Love’ or ‘Cry Me a River’s inherent drama, but even if it did have such moments, one gets the sense that Timberlake would have more fun breaking them down and finding what makes them tick rather than just playing along. That’s a luxury only he can afford.