[30 September 2013]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Clearly, the six years of time between FutureSex/LoveSounds and the now two-part 20/20 Experience felt like a long time to Justin Timberlake as much as it did to his fans. When Part One of 20/20 dropped back in March, it was a sizeable event, promoted on just about every major website that one can imagine, with lead single and future wedding staple “Suit & Tie” heading up its airwave dominance. The LP’s gargantuan publicity machine made no illusions about the type of music within it; this first part is dominated by ornate, huge pop songs that run upwards of eight minutes, with string arrangements, booming choruses, and slick grooves abound.
Timberlake is an ambitious musician, but his years of participation in the recently reunited ‘N Sync ensure that no matter what heights he aims to reach, everything comes down to the pop hook in the end. “Suit & Tie’s” elaborate live dance numbers are charming and fun to witness, yet simultaneously it’s bound to receive its own elevator muzak rendition one of these days. His ability to comfortably straddle the fence that runs through the worlds of earworm-oriented radio fare and auteur pop is impressive, and at one hour and 11 minutes, Part One of 20/20 is the sound of Timberlake letting the creative fount overflow, making up for all of the lost time following FutureSex.
Yet now, even though the record is but a few months old, it’s aged considerably, feeling less like Timberlake’s statement of intent and more like his Be Here Now moment. Riding a popularity high driven by his fantastic turn in The Social Network and his tenure as Saturday Night Live’s guest star extraordinaire, Timberlake clearly had all the confidence boosters he needed, and he did not hold back anything in recording 20/20. This creative energy is understandable on his part, but in running as wild as he did he took otherwise great pop songs and embellished them to the point of suffocation—both on the part of the arrangements and the listener’s earbuds.
Part One’s best cuts, “Suit & Tie” and “That Girl,” display his tunefulness just as well as longer tracks like “Mirrors” and “Pusher Love Girl” do, and they do so without getting caught up in being capital-E Epic. Certain facets of Part One’s concept do come across in the way Timberlake intended, particularly its being a testimonial to his newfound love of monogamy and commitment following his marriage to Jessica Biel. But in almost every other way, 20/20 is Timberlake preferring the broad spray of a 12-gauge to the precise aim of a rifle, the latter being what made FutureSex the work of pop genius that it is. With FutureSex, Timberlake crafted a set of direct, to-the-point jams, mixing together equal parts Prince-esque charm, dark sexual energy, and a nuanced production quality by frequent collaborator Timbaland.
All of this to say, the overreaches of Part One can be instructive for Timberlake. Or, rather, they could have been instructive, because not but six months after that unbridled beast of a record, Timberlake is back with Part Two of 20/20—presumably, each album is stands in for one eye—and it’s both as ambitious as its predecessor and longer by four minutes. One song clocks in at nine and a half minutes, and closer “Not a Bad Thing” features a hidden track that brings its time up to 11 and a half minutes. On paper, this sounds pretty groan-worthy, and in many ways it is. In deciding to embrace his studio excesses to the max by adding a whole other dimension to The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake is definitely oversaturating his brand to a significant way.
Surprisingly enough, however, The 20/20 Experience (2 of 2) is quite the step up from the first part. Even when it plunges into excess—which it does quite often—the basic pop structures underneath remain far more compelling than anything off of Part One. The ghosts of his ‘N Sync days have never really left Timberlake (see: “What Goes Around” from FutureSex), but here there’s even a blatant shout-out to those days in “Not a Bad Thing”, which utilizes the same emotional earnestness that made ”(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” the heart-melter it was back in the late ‘90s. “Pair of Wings”, the bonus track that follows after a brief minute of silence in this track, is also a syrupy paean to devotion, but this time it’s got Broadway aspirations. Timberlake’s vocals here are particularly lovely; it’s easy to imagine this cut as a show-stealing confessional in some future musical. (Given Timberlake’s goal to dominate as many major art mediums as possible, it’s no stretch to imagine.) Part One may have “Suit & Tie” to its credit, but the best songs on Part Two double its success.
Nevertheless, this second half of the Experience is a rocky rather than an unqualified success. Take album highlight “True Blood”, arguably the best thing Timberlake has written since the FutureSex sessions. Its first five minutes are propulsive, infectious, and confident in its uninhibited sexuality, all of which are signposts of Timberlake at his strongest. That he is able to do all those things in spite of the song’s vampiric lyrical matter—as if the world needed another thing to pile on top of that craze—makes it even more impressive. Had “True Blood” run out its course at the five-minute mark, it’d be an instant Timberlake classic… but it goes on. For another four minutes. If those four had been cut out, which should have been easy given that all there is during that time is noodling and vocal filler, not only would the song have been better off but the rest of the LP would have been as well. He could have just as easily kept “Pair of Wings” as a regular LP cut to fill the time he spends dragging out “True Blood”. The only “epic” song here that really warrants its time is “Amnesia”, which mixes the vocal scat that Timberlake has had success with using before (“LoveStoned”) with romantic string arrangements. It’s the one instance where Timberlake achieves the grandiloquent vision he seems to be aiming at. “True Blood” is thus The 20/20 Experience‘s greatest achievement and simultaneously an encapsulation of its overarching follies.
While Part One had the benefit of being Timberlake’s “love letter to his wife”, a concept loose enough to allow for variety but identifiable enough to give a sense of continuity, Part Two is noticeably more scattershot in its genre experimentation. He manages one hell of a hat trick with “Drink You Away”, one of Part Two’s weirdest—and most successful—moments. By any stretch of the imagination, this song belongs on a Montgomery Gentry album. The way it lists Jameson and Jack Daniels on a first-name basis (“I’ve tried Jack, I’ve tried Jim, I’ve tried all of their friends”) is uncharacteristically honky-tonk for Timberlake, and musically it isn’t exactly a cozy bedfellow with the rest of the LP. For whatever reason, though, it works. In fact, most of Part Two works despite its eyes being bigger than its stomach.
The times when the album slips up, interestingly enough, are those cases when one would expect Timberlake to be in his wheelhouse, namely the collaborations he does with Drake and Jay-Z, respectively, “Cabaret” and “Murder”. The former for whatever reason never gets off of the ground, and the latter grounds itself around a clunky metaphor about a woman being “murder,” which not even Timberlake’s suave delivery can save from its patent awkwardness.
And then there’s “Take Back the Night”. In composition it mines the same Motown tropes that make up “Suit & Tie”—less successfully, at that—but in its old-school ambitions it reveals something important about Timberlake. More than anything else, he has successfully proved with The 20/20 Experience that he has come leagues away from dancing to “Bye Bye Bye” in front of millions of excitable teenagers, in the process becoming the jack-of-all-trades type that inspires awe form the layperson and the critic alike. The image of the dapper singer in a crisply tailored suit that “Take Back the Night” evokes demonstrates just how much Timberlake wants his audience to understand that he really is aspiring to become the Frank Sinatra of the boy band age: from pop roots to sophisticated chanteur, the kind of voice that people will be still be talking about when this generation is nearing its grave.
It’s hard to fault Timberlake about wanting that kind of fame—it’s hard to think of a few people short of Godspeed You! Black Emperor who wouldn’t at least be mildly piqued by the prospect—but having immortality on the horizon doesn’t grant impunity for sheer studio excess, which is the defining feature of The 20/20 Experience when all is said and done. Ambition is these records’ only unifying thread, and while impressive in its audacity, it’s hardly enough to tie together these often very disparate albums. To digest Part One or Two individually is a feat by itself; together, at nearly three hours of pop music at its most bombastic, the challenge is even more formidable. Above all, they form a portrait of a man who’s reached the top of the world only to find he’s not sure exactly what to do with all he’s gained to get there.