“Music is for dreamers. You should be able to create another world that you can live in. I’m not gonna speak for Bob Dylan—he’s one of my idols—but from my perspective, as a fan, it seems to me that he started creating music that made him feel like another person and that’s what it should do. [The studio] really is one place that you can still go to that you can be completely free. You can lock yourself in a room and make a whole other world.”
—Justin Timberlake, Capital FM interview (2013)
No matter how you feel about Justin Timberlake, you still have to marvel about how hard the man has worked to get us to not completely hate him.
After all, that he become “respectable” after fronting the biggest boy band of the ‘90s is no small feat, and through his unrelenting effort to prove his talent across multiple mediums, Timberlake has managed to stand out in a way that none of his contemporaries have been able to, making Nick Lachey and even his own *NSYNC alumnus JC Chasez become mere footnotes in the big book of pop music. (Although, it’s certainly not for a lack of trying on their parts, even after Chasez had Timberlake co-write and produce a would-be solo hit for him).
Timberlake’s solo career got off to an admittedly rocky start, but by the time he settled into his sci-fi lothario groove with 2006’s Futuresex/Lovesounds, he realized that trying to become the go-to pop zeitgeist that Michael Jackson was (evidenced by his need to record MJ’s own rejected leftovers) was actually not what the fates had set out for him. With Timbaland’s appropriately futuristic beats in tow, the duo began crafting their own brand of forward-thinking, synth-heavy pop music, and before long, Timberlake started expanding his own brand and building up a universal kind of goodwill that is afforded only to the most elite of superstars.
He got Oscar buzz for his role in The Social Network, became the go-to hook boy for rap songs the world over (which is a role that was later taken over by Adam Levine and we’re guessing will go to Marcus Mumford next), started making goofy appearances on Fallon and SNL (he won an Emmy for the latter) and—of course—began his long and fruitful relationship with the Lonely Island, still capable of generating the group’s biggest laughs this side of Michael Bolton.
This all helps explain why The 20/20 Experience arrives on a tidal wave of industry hype and media omnipresence. With its shifting grooves and average song length of seven minutes, some publications have already started hailing this album as Timberlake’s true “statement” album, an instant classic. After all, Timberlake said in multiple post-Futuresex interviews that the only time he’d come back to music is when he was truly ready for it. Yet when you actually sit down and separate the album from its hype, what you find is a disc that is without question the most ambitious thing Timberlake has undertaken in his career. But what surprises the most is how utterly underwhelming it is in terms of actual substance.
Let’s start with the obvious: Timberlake picked the hands-down weakest single possible to lead off the album with “Suit & Tie”. While JT no doubt wanted to show off his Timbaland-backed jazz crooner status, his voice was never his strong suit, and while he could accentuate his falsetto quite well at times (note the chorus to “My Love”), using it over a track that bears such a strong sonic and stylistic resemblance to the equally-derided Jay-Z single “Show Me What You Got” is doing him no favors, almost as if he thought that decking himself out in Vegas glitz alone will make him come off as classy (also doing him no favors? Jay-Z’s own unimpressive verse on the same song).
Thankfully, 20/20‘s only other bit of lounge-singer schtick can be found on the much-better “That Girl”, wherein Timbaland basically does the best Daptone Records imitation he possibly can, and more or less pulls it off. The rest of 20/20‘s experience comes in the form of the dual Timbers tackling different classic soul tropes and interpreting in their own way, even if those tropes are ones they developed themselves. “Let the Groove Get In” rides a near conga-like groove that proves to be just one “mama say mama saw” away from turning into another Michael Jackson revisionist piece, although its most interesting musical directions are the little synth/sample/piano breaks before each iteration of the chorus, an aspect that isn’t really developed until the song’s extended conclusion.
The sweet love song “Mirrors”, meanwhile, has a verse that feels like it was Frankensteined out of Aaron Carter’s “Shake” and Timberlake’s own “Cry Me a River”, and—just like “Let the Groove In”—has a post-song breakdown where the reiterated phrase of “You are / You Are / The love / Of my life” gets an extended workout that actually sounds more sincere than the song that preceded it. In this post-song groove, he introduces the phrase “Girl you’re my reflection / All I see is you”, which makes as a far more fitting Valentine than “It’s like you’re my mirror / My mirror staring back at me”.
That whole saccharine sweetness vibe actually fits Timberlake extremely well, because with his range, it’s an intention that he can sell without much effort. He has to put a lot more work to come off as a professional lothario, however, and for a majority of 20/20, that’s exactly the angle that he pushes. Take, for example, the absolutely ridiculous sex jam “Spaceship Coupe”, which, in spite of its appropriately slinky production, simply can’t make a line like “I’m trying to find an alien in you” work despite Timberlake’s best intentions.
He does a better job with the stuttering “Tunnel Vision”, although it’s Timbaland’s clattering percussion and quick-moving synth work doing a majority of the work in this case. In truth, 20/20‘s best sex jam comes in the form of “Strawberry Bubblegum”, which strips things down to their very core, a minimal percussion base and lots of moody synth creating a vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place at all on Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream. Contrast that with the overproduced “Don’t Hold the Wall” and it’s obvious that Timberlake works best when he’s not overthinking it: he’s not a fantastic songwriter, but he can still present the material in a fascinating way under the right circumstances.
When he gets too much in his own head, he pushes for weak analogies like on “Pusher Love Girl” or Futuresex‘s pseudo-social tale “Losing My Way”, wherein Timberlake’s clumsy analogies get in the way of any notable catharsis (there is no way to unhear the line “My nicotine / My blue dream / My hydroponic candy jelly bean”), which means, as always, any emotional impact can be traced right back to Timbaland’s production, which serves as a fine safety net for Timberlake but could really save just about any other singer in the same context .
Yet while the Timbaland/Timberlake partnership has produced some quality songs and at least one genuine classic (in the form of “Cry Me a River”), they have never produced anything even remotely like 20/20‘s stunning closer “Blue Ocean Floor”. Despite some occasional, barely-there flutters of noise, there is no percussion on this track at all, and only the scarcest of bass synths. Instead, it is all a dark-hued reverse-looped synth pattern and Timberlake’s voice—and nothing else. The track is moody, atmospheric, and utterly spectacular, lyrically depicting the ability to locate your lover’s voice even through white noise and static, the atmosphere and Timberlake’s performance actually making a song about romantic sonar come off as believable and even relatable.
There are some rather poetic lyrics to be found (just the line “rain made of echoes” by itself proves to be quite evocative), and right as the song is done, what appears to be the same string section that opened the album quietly plays on, hitting a nice crescendo before drowning in water and fading out completely (an effect, it should be noted, that is copied almost verbatim from Badly Drawn Boy’s aching “Cause a Rockside”, and yes, it’s just as effective). It not only works as an excellent closer, but may very well be the single best thing Timberlake has ever put his name on.
When you add it all up, The 20/20 Experience is indeed the sound of a much more musically ambitious Timberlake, but even with his boundary-pushing songs and numerous (and often fascinating) interludes, he is still only a somewhat decent songwriter, and it’s Timbaland who winds up picking a lot of JT’s slack. Even the most hardened of cynics have to marvel at 20/20‘s sheer musical audacity, but at the end of the day, the individual songs fail to hold up to close scrutiny. While Timberlake has more than paid his dues and has built up enough goodwill to bend the media to his whim and have his work get hailed in some quarters as being visionary, it’s still utterly remarkable how short-sighted the songs are on an album that’s called The 20/20 Experience.