The only way to properly review Justin Timberlake’s highly anticipated new album, The 20/20 Experience is to put it into proper context first. This record was not spontaneously generated, nor is JT a no-name artist trying to find his niché in a highly competitive market. There’s a great deal of history here, and it’s important to get the facts straight before anything else. Firstly, this is the year 2013, a whopping 7 years after Mr. Timberlake released his last album, FutureSex/LoveSounds. During that time, the landscape of popular music has changed dramatically. Outside of public interest shifting from a hip-hop oriented sound to dance and indie, iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify (to name a few) have revolutionized the way we listen to, experience, and obtain our music. Practically nothing in the “pop world” resembles 2006 anymore, but it’s not as if JT doesn’t know that. He hasn’t been living on a remote island somewhere, he’s been around, having made hit records with Madonna, T.I., and Ciara, but as a featured artist; 20/20 is simply Justin’s return as a solo act. Oddly enough, and we all collectively feel this way, it seems as if he had been gone. It feels as though all of those collaborations, movie roles, and SNL appearances were done by a completely different person. As untrue as that is, we have to listen to The 20/20 Experience from just that perspective. This is Justin’s first solo venture closing in on a decade, and he’s expected to have learned and observed and incorporate his findings into a near-flawless project. We’re not expecting “Rusty Justy,” we’re expecting a seasoned professional who is 7 years older, wiser, and more talented than the last time around. That is the context Justin Timberlake has created for himself, and that is how this album needs to be listened to.
Our appetites were first whet earlier this year when we were treated to a brand new single, “Suit & Tie,” which featured a guest spot from Jay-Z (Track Review Here.) The first impression was lackluster, as we were all hoping for that earth-shattering “SexyBack” moment, and instead were given a safe, throw-back number whose balls had yet to drop. The song was pleasant enough, though, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt; sure, it’s an unnecessary five and a half minutes, but I can forgive a little (remember that word) embellishment every now and then. Still, I went into The 20/20 Experience with high hopes of a well-crafted, forward-thinking pop record… you know, the kind we all expect from Justin Timberlake. It kicks off with “Pusher Love Girl,” an authoritative tune not all that different from “Suit & Tie,” just not as catchy. Four minutes later, and I’m feeling good, complete and still pretty excited, until I notice that the song is only half way over. I’m all for an epic 8-minute anthem a la “Stairway To Heaven” or “Purple Rain” if they actually go somewhere. “Pusher Love Girl” does everything it needs to in its first half, but it’s nowhere near impressive enough to continue on the way it did. By the time “Suit & Tie” came on, I was actually relieved. The song, which actually sounded light years better in the context of the album, was then followed by “Don’t Hold The Wall,” a seven minute mid-tempo (and I’ll be brutally honest) bore-fest. What are we supposed to do with this track? It’s not groovy enough to dance to, it’s not lyrically varied enough to get lost in, and it’s not instant enough to want to endure it again. At this point, we’re three songs in and a whopping 20 minutes have elapsed.
On the other side of the opening trio, we’re treated to “Strawberry Bubblegum,” which, yes, is just as horrible as the title suggests. This one comes right up to the eight minute mark, once again, for no reason, and, for the record, Justin proves he is not the second coming of Barry White. Probably the track’s one redeeming quality is that he seemingly makes reference to *NSYNC’s forgotten hit, “Pop,” which is awesome. When it ends and “Tunnel Vision” kicks in, it’s hard to tell if it’s just another section of “Strawberry Bubblegum,” or new track altogether. So far, none of the songs are particularly catchy outside of “Suit & Tie” (which is sounding better and better with every long minute,) and they are so unreasonably lengthened and unvaried that they all start to mesh together. It’s really a shame, because this direction really works for JT! It’s soulful and jazzy with brilliant touches of hip-hop on top of faucetto-tastic vocals and that natural charm that has kept us coming back for more for so long. This is a delivery-issue through and through…Half way through the album and I am drained! Every time there’s a gleam of hope that he still has his mojo (like one brief moment in the six and three quarter minute “Tunnel Vision,”) he decides to embellish far too long. If there was one final push 20/20 had left in it, “Spaceship Coupe” would have had to be it. Unfortunately, it’s just another slow seven minutes of boring, not-quite-romantic-enough lyrics, that ends up being little more than an embarrassing Prince impersonation. The album has seemingly officially passed the point of no return.
Next up, the record’s shortest song, “That Girl” (closing in on five minutes,) kicks off with an opening skit introducing “JT & The Tennessee Kids” and sets the scene perfectly for a much needed energy-injector. With the first few horn hits, it really feels like we’re in for a fun, “Señorita”-like jam, but instead, the slow groove kicks in to much disappointment. Luckily, the song is decent enough as it is. Finally, we have something catchy that he doesn’t kill by carrying it on for another four minutes. That fact alone washes away all of its underwhelming qualities. Next up is an upbeat, but horribly placed, kick in the pants in the form of “Let The Groove In,” a faux-Carnivale anthem with Latin beats and blaring horns that, of course, goes on for seven minutes. Where was this energy earlier in the album?! Nevermind the fact that it painfully lacks substance and ends up morphing into a horribly redundant “same old, same old” of mid-tempo, hip-hop beats that totally ruin any of its better moments. Realistically, it was too-little-too-late anyway. It’s pretty clear the album is a bust by this point, but when its second single, “Mirrors” comes in, it’s impossible not to set all grievances aside for just a little bit. The song may be eight minutes long, but this one actually goes somewhere! With catchy hooks, soaring strings, roaring guitars, and appropriate pace-changes, “Mirrors” is easily The 20/20 Experience‘s stand out moment. If it weren’t tucked so far into the album, there’d be no reason to listen in this far, honestly. Finally, to wrap up the record is “Blue Ocean Floor,” a simple, beautiful, (you guessed it) seven minute long, tune that doesn’t exactly win any lyrical genius award, but manages to actually work on the whole. It’s another slow one, but the fact that it’s not over-complicated or pointlessly elongated makes for a really great closer. It’s fairly reminiscent of Madonna’s Ray Of Light era, which is a serious compliment.
Just like that, though, the Experience is over. If it weren’t for the two worth-while closing tracks and the lead single, the overall reaction to the album would be disastrous. Justin Timberlake did not make a great album here, but there were still a good number of things that did work. The style suits him well, the embellishment doesn’t. The romantic charm he was going for was perfect for where he is in his life (recently married) and age appropriate, but the delivery missed the mark on more than a few occasions. There is absolutely no reason so many of the songs had to sound so similar and uninspired without even a hope of energy or variance. By the time that comes, it’s too late, and the song itself (“Let The Groove In”) is hardly worth getting excited over anyway. “Suit & Tie” ends up completely reversing itself sitting next to its brothers and sisters on the album. In the grand scheme of things, it’s lackluster, but as far as the album goes, it’s one of only two or three songs that have any real spark. This brings me back to the context, though. If this was JT’s debut album, things would feel different. Sure the track lengths would be annoying, but his ideas and talent would have been marveled at! Unfortunately, this isn’t his first. We know what he can do by this point, and this isn’t it. Justin Timberlake hasn’t earned the right to not release any music for 7 years and come back with this kind of pretension. He’s one talented guy, and if he simply cut all of the songs here in half, reshuffled the sequence, and added in one or two more radio-friendly tunes, he’d have himself a masterpiece. Instead, we have a set of songs that are mostly all far too long and aren’t nearly catchy enough to warrant going on forever, with only one true exception. In the context of how we should be listening to The 20/20 Experience, it’s an utter disappointment. Coming from someone else, or from Justin Timberlake at a different time, we may be having a different discussion here, but that sadly is not the case. This album was nowhere near worth the wait.