Me and JT: Narcissism and ‘The 20/20 Experience’

Justin Timberlake
The 20/20 Experience

Sadly, I do not have 20/20 vision. That has literally nothing to do with this discussion of Justin Timberlake’s recently released album The 20/20 Experience, but I just wanted to get it out there.

In all seriousness, I don’t see a lot of myself in JT (in fact, I don’t see very much at all out of my bum right eye, but that’s another story). I am, though, fascinated by him. As a number of reviews of The 20/20 Experience have pointed out, the 2002 single “Cry Me a River” was the song that propelled Timberlake out of the B-league and into the “next Michael Jackson” position that he currently occupies. Although there were a few other singles from the… “cleverly” titled Justified, none of them had the musical and cultural impact of that one, the video for which moved him carefully and deliberately out of the space occupied by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and the boy bands, one of which he obviously used to be a part of. Over the past decade, building on the sonic template of “Cry Me a River”, Timberlake has gained even more fame, critical success, and cultural omnipresence. Amazingly, he has accomplished this despite releasing only one album between 2002 and 2013.

FutureSex/LoveSounds brilliantly blew out the “Cry Me a River” sound in compelling, maximalist ways, extending the frenetic, jittery, spaced-out aesthetic to a handful of strong tracks that form the core of his second album. The other memorable decision on that album were Timberlake and producer Timbaland’s dedication to infusing their pop songs with extended intros, outros, and interludes. Sprinkled across three to four songs, these relatively brief passages (compared to those found on The 20/20 Experience) lend texture to the album and improve the overall listening experience immeasurably, particularly across tracks three through six. They have led to comparisons between Timberlake and Prince, which I congratulate him for but which I struggle to hear myself. In returning to FutureSex/LoveSounds in the past few weeks in preparation for The 20/20 Experience, I was struck by the number of songs I didn’t remember at all. This canonical pop album includes a song called “Damn Girl” featuring pre-hologram, and for anyone complaining about “Spaceship Coupe” on The 20/20 Experience, I strongly encourage you to take a fresh listen to this.

Of course, that really doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, the quality of those six songs (and “Cry Me a River”, which sounds as futuristic and compelling today as it did over a decade ago) has allowed Timberlake to take a break from music and to try his hand at acting. Interestingly, although this has resulted in largely mixed results on the big screen, it has led to great success on the small screen. The same charisma that repeatedly fails to come across in film projects is a welcome presence as a five-time host of Saturday Night Live and recently as a week-long guest and performer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It is hard to determine the effect of these performances on his cultural capital, but they clearly interest him more than appearing on tracks of other pop, R&B, and rap artists, which he has done little of in his time away from music. For example, the most significant musical moment Timberlake has had since 2006 is “Dick in a Box”. Despite, or perhaps in part because of this time away, no other contemporary pop star, apart from perhaps Beyonce (when she is not lip-singing or encouraging her listeners to bow down), manages to garner the acclaim and attention of both music critics and mainstream fans, though Taylor Swift is moving in that direction.

Thus it was with great anticipation that all of us got our first listen to The 20/20 Experience at some point in the past few weeks, and now, a week after its release, I feel ready to assess it. Here are four takeaways I have picked up from two weeks of listening to The 20/20 Experience

1. The 20/20 Experience Is Too Long

This is probably the most common complaint about the album, but it is so, so true. Although I have listened to each song more than a half-dozen times at this point (or so my iTunes tells me), I have not listened to the entire album, start-to-finish, in one sitting. It just isn’t possible. Clocking in at over 70 minutes (pushing 80 if you acquired it from Target), the length is a real problem.

It should be noted, though, that unlike Swift’s albums (which clock in around 70 minutes but feature 14-plus songs), the problem here is that the average track length is a whopping seven minutes. On the best songs, this is terrific and much appreciated. Like on FutureSex/LoveSounds, the intros and outros make a good thing better and more memorable. However, when they are also included on the weaker cuts — indeed, when they are included on every song — the overall impact is dulled considerably. If I’m in the middle of track three (the fantastic “Don’t Hold the Wall”) and really feel like hearing track five (the also fantastic “Tunnel Vision”), I’m in for a 10-12-minute wait. It’s a five-course meal where every course is a steak.

2. The 20/20 Experience Is Carefully Constructed

I feel confident that no matter how much time I put into listening to analyzing it, it will pale in comparison to the time Timberlake and Timbaland spent calculating every hook, interlude, and falsetto. The album feels like something created in a lab, with the goals of (1) positioning JT as a more-powerful-than-ever cultural force, (2) fulfilling wildly high expectations from the Pitchforkiest to the N’Synciest listeners, and (3) laying the groundwork for future domination. Oh, and, as Timberlake has repeatedly stated himself in interviews, (4) getting you pregnant. But, perhaps more than anything else, this intense focus on creating something legacy-worthy trickles down the bones of every song.

The only problem with that is that, like a bread dough that has been kneaded too long, the result feels labored and feels so carefully put together that it can be hard for listeners to breathe. I imagine a focus group meeting to choose “Pusher Love Girl” as the lead track to the album, and the crafting of tracks two through five feels so achingly deliberate. To be clear, this pacing (apart from the general overlength) is perfect — it just also feels a little too perfect.

Alternately, the second half is less propulsive, with a collection of individually interesting songs that don’t quite meld together. The aforementioned “Spaceship Coupe” gets things off to a Lonely Island-worthy start, with cringe-inducing lyrics and a mediocre hook. The best example of a track that would be greatly improved by cutting one to two minutes from it, it leads into the jaunty, under-five-minute “That Girl”. Perhaps it would be impossible for the Miami Sound Machine-biting “Let the Groove Get In” to fit in the context of any album, and I do think it’s smartly buried as song eight, but again the point is that it all feels so heavily labored. “Mirrors” and ”Blue Ocean Floor” are fantastically strong, though I am definitely wearing out the Skip button jumping from “Tunnel Vision” to “Mirrors”. In today’s MP3-listening world, perhaps album sequencing doesn’t matter quite as much… but you’re reading a 2000-word analysis of this record, so maybe it kind of still does.

3. The 20/20 Experience Is Wildly Narcissistic

This album is so unbelievably, hilariously narcissistic that I want to argue that might actually be about its own narcissism. Although the majority of the songs are directed at or describing relationships with another person, that person (“That Girl”, or the one in the dress he likes, or the one who is so good looking that he thinks he’s looking in a mirror) has no real substance.

The overpowering narcissism is best heard in the singles. In “Suit & Tie”, Timberlake gets caught up in the details of his own appearance, leading him to the hilariously tossed-off “and you’re dressed in that dress I like”. That really is the extent of his concern with her. And I love that. Starting with the hilarious “I be on my suit-and-tie-shit” phrasing, which is brilliant, he constructs the song as a tutorial, with the “Can I show you a few things?” of the intro leading to the “Let me show you a few things” hook running throughout the song. He switches between “you” and “she” repeatedly, but, as the song, its video, and its performances make clear, does it really matter who he is tutoring? He is wearing his suit and tie, and he is awesome.

“Mirrors” is even better. Here Timberlake updates Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”, only it’s actually the complete antithesis of that song. The basic thrust of the lyrics is: “You look so good that I think I might actually be looking at myself.” Just in case you aren’t familiar with the story of Narcissus, it’s pretty much that. And the four-minute outro is the sound of JT falling right in the lake. The best scrap of lyrics is “You reflect me, I love that about you / And if I could, I would look at us all the time”. The absolutely genius video downplays the narcissism of the lyrics by (a) being effectively sappy, (b) featuring really cute old people, and (c) keeping JT offscreen until the last two minutes.

4. The 20/20 Experience Is Very, Very Good

Reports would indicate that Timberlake is not done with us this year, that the second ten songs of The 20/20 Experience will be revealed by year’s end. First, I don’t believe this. The back-to-back, same-year album release rarely happens, and it probably isn’t a good idea. After a year of radio domination — particularly given the large chunks of times that his songs demand — we will be ready for some time away from Timberlake, and I think he and his producers will sense this.

But, second, even with the overwhelming length of this album, its over-calculation, and its creepy narcissism, I love it. The two singles are great; “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Tunnel Vision” are two strong shots at “My Love”-style excellence; “Blue Ocean Floor” is as good as any ballad he’s ever recorded; and most of the songs not mentioned in this sentence are worth their space in your iTunes. Whether or not the songs and the album will become as ubiquitous as FutureSex/LoveSounds remains to be seen; few people were raving about its importance or its excellence until well after its release. As with most pop albums, the measure of its impact and the cultural imprint that it leaves will be heard on the radio and seen on the charts. Until the album’s reputation cements itself, I will continue looking for a situation where I have 70+ minutes to listen to the album straight through. And maybe one day I’ll even get around to listening to those bonus tracks.