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Album Review: The 20/20 Experience

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Just when we thought that maybe – just maybe – the coast was clear and that someone else could have a turn at bringing sexy back, our collective thunder was stolen by the return of the phrase’s originator – this time around embodying SexyBack in the form of a slick and snazzy Suit and Tie.

Six years ago, Justin Timberlake seemed to leave music by the wayside as he delved purposefully into a movie career. While he was serious about the professional change of track, fans perhaps struggled to label him an actor; just as it’s hard to view Matt LeBlanc in a movie and not see him as Joey Tribbiani, we watched The Social Network and half-expected Joey Fatone, Lance Bass et al to jump out from behind the set and join Timberlake in a rendition of DIRTY DIRTY DIRTY DIRTY POP (POP POP POP YOU CAN’T STOP). But the film world accepted his genuine career shift and threw several success-earning roles at him – which made it even more doomful for supporters of his musical alter ego to expect a comeback.

The simple fact is that Timberlake is neither a pop star nor a movie star: he’s a superstar. It’s hard for anyone to dislike JT (the fact that he can be recognized simply by initials now reinforces the notion of his superstardom); he’s taken seriously by the movie-watching public, college kids who prolifically Facebook-shared his now-legendary “Dick in a Box” and “Motherlover” sketches on Saturday Night Live, moms who find his always-polite demeanor on talk shows endearing, rappers he’s worked with from T.I. to Snoop Dogg, and of course, twenty-something women who grew up with his washboard abs all over their bedroom walls. I think even the seemingly callous Eminem, who once rapped “Instincts to kill *NSync, don’t get me started / these fuckin’ brats can’t sing, and Britney’s garbage”, may now bite his tongue – I wouldn’t even be surprised by a future collaboration.

In other words, the world was waiting for his return to music. JT could have released an 80-minute album of bleating noises over a cowbell and the public would have eaten it up. But instead, his efforts have gone into his third studio album, The 20/20 Experience. The record is upbeat and buoyant in tone, and plays with a range of distinct styles and genres; this is a more mature (now married) Timberlake, who effuses a sense that things are going well – but there’s no hip hop-style bragging, but rather, it’s demonstrated assuredly and artistically.

2002’s Justified was a quintessential pop album, with still-catchy hits like “Rock Your Body”, and was thus perhaps an extension of the *NSync feel. 2006’s FutureSex / LoveSounds was edgier (insomuch as JT can be considered edgy), with heavy hip hop influence and a defining futuristic mood, probably best summed up by the synth-led rhythm of “My Love”. The 20/20 Experience goes in the opposite direction and embraces the past, with an incontestable retro feel right from the very top with the opening track, “Pusher Love Girl”, a hark-back to slow-tempo, old-school R&B, a track that immediately shows off Timberlake’s signature falsetto.

The retro atmosphere allows for some corny lyrics, clearly written tongue-in-cheek, and surely a homage to the love songs of the ‘50s that covered up sexual content with harmless-sounding words (an example that comes to mind is from the rock ‘n’ roll classic, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, with the deceiving lyrics: “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in the seafood store”). Timberlake’s versions include “Won’t you be my strawberry bubblegum / Then I’ll be your blueberry lollipop / And then I’ll love you ‘til I make you pop” – from the similarly laid-back track, “Strawberry Bubblegum”. One of my favorite tracks, “That Girl”, is in the same nostalgic style, this time flirting with the doo-wop genre; it is reminiscent of something you would hear from The Temptations on an episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.

“That Girl” also stands out for the reason that it’s the only song on the album that’s shorter than five minutes in length. The majority of the tracks are seven or eight minutes long; sometimes this elongated technique works, but at other times it doesn’t. They follow in a similar vein to successful songs from FutureSex / LoveSounds such as “What Goes Around Comes Around” and “Lovestoned / I Think She Knows”, where the melody would break down halfway through the song and the pace would shift dramatically (to the point at which you’d question if you were still listening to the same song); Timberlake and long-time producer Timbaland are trying to recreate the same magic but end up overdoing it a tad. However, Timbaland’s influence is still felt in the production, as well as in his signature interjections (à la “Cry Me a River”), which work well in tracks like “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Tunnel Vision”.

The eight-minute method is effective in “Mirrors”, the current single, mainly because it’s so good that you want it to go on for eight minutes – I’d probably be even happier with sixteen. And possibly even more pleased if the entire album was just “Mirrors” repeated over and over again. It’s undeniably poppy in structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) and in sound (it’s catchy as a common cold in a hospital sauna), which is why it’s a sublime choice for a single. It’s also vintage JT, packed to the brim with falsetto – and he and Timbo nail the long-song format, getting the second part of the eight-minute extravaganza just as catchy and falsetto-y as the first. It’s SO good. But despite its poppiness, it still fits with the style of the entire album, and does not stick out crudely as a moneymaking hit.

If there’s a track that does do that, perhaps it’s “Suit and Tie”, the lead single – but maybe that’s just because it’s the only song with a featured artist, and none other than the superstar to top all superstars (sorry, Justin): Jay-Z. On paper, it’s a match made in Heaven, chiefly because “JT and Jay-Z” has such a tongue-twisting ring to it, and it’s clear they think so too – they’re going on tour together this summer and I’ve already bagged my tickets – but the song falls flat. It’s slick, it’s retro, it’s classy, but there’s just something missing. Even Jay’s verse is slow, labored and simply a bit dull. Perhaps it’s like a clash of the titans and superstars work better alone – but if Jay and Kanye can do it, surely the inoffensive-by-comparison Timberlake can get a slice of the action?

But the album is solid, and the more I listen to it, the more I want to listen to it. Does it live up to the hype? Probably not. But that’s only because the hype was suffocatingly overdone – but it had to be, for JT’s homecoming was no small matter. There were his Grammy and Brit Awards performances, his return to Saturday Night Live as both host and musical guest (and induction into the elite “Five-Timers Club”, where he joins Steve Martin, Tom Hanks and other huge names who’ve hosted five or more times), and his appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for an entire week, which came to be known as Justin Timberweek. In the face of all the hysteria and his unfathomable popularity, it could have been easy for JT to churn out an uninspired record with umpteen collaborators and guest rap verses, and sell just as many – if not more – copies, but with the exception of the Jay-Z inclusion, he was having none of that. Instead, what we’ve been handed are ten eclectic tracks – including an apparently Latin-influenced “Let the Groove Get In”, which sounds like it features Gloria Estefan on the bongos – with an overarching retro mood personified by the new, determined-not-to-sell-out JT and his accompanying band, The Tennessee Kids. The boy done good.

How would I grade it? I guess I would award it a well-deserved 16/20 (though The 16/20 Experience just doesn’t have the same appeal). But it’s clear that he’s home, and Hollywood is going to have to wait their turn. My only fear is overplaying “Mirrors”. It’s just way too good.

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