Musician, one-man brand, comedian and (sometimes) capable actor, Justin Timberlake somehow danced past his sophomore slump while none of us were looking. Now he's back with his first album in seven years, The 20/20 Experience, a perfect distillation of everything we've come to know about the 32-year-old phenom. It's tasty, stylish, and a tad forgettable, but you'll still want to give it a listen just because it's so much fun.
Timberlake again teams up with acclaimed-producer Timbaland (previously, FutureSex/LoveSounds) to create a beautifully chaotic ambience throughout the entire album. Clapping, electric whistles, bass fills and background singers fill every other phrase, and miraculously, Justin's silky falsetto threads it all together. Experience takes what would normally be a tricky challenge—anchoring a neo soul album with a light, high voice—and turns it into an asset. You can always hear Justin's signature notes amidst the synthesizer hits, snare rattles, and verbal pops.
A pop singer on paper, Timberlake's musical stylings have quietly shifted toward something more soulful, even tribal. The switch may not be entirely genuine—his hooks are just too radio-friendly and opportunistic to fully excuse—but he's doing a better job disguising tripe than many of his pop contemporaries. "Don't Hold the Wall" and "Let the Groove Get In" both take respectable (albeit small) risks, with generous layers of auxiliary percussion and mildly unpredictable transpositions, choices absent from Justified and scant in FutureSex/LoveSounds.
As part of their faux-transition to soul, the Timber-Timba duo focuses squarely on groove over melody, producing (mostly) positive results. "Strawberry Bubblegum," an average number lyrically, becomes one of the album's best tracks through tasteful juxtaposition of light strings and a soft, echoing synth pad. If you aren't immediately hooked on any one of Experience's tracks, just let the song's atmosphere settle in for a bit: they all have a modest infectiousness that inevitably wins your approval.
Still, Experience features a few flaws too grating to ignore. Lyrically, the album is derivative at best, and sometimes even vapid. Nearly every track settles into one of three versions of a familiar Timberlakean mold. Justin plays the suave seducer ("Suit and Tie," "Don't Hold the Wall," "Spaceship Coupe"), the pining admirer ("Pusher Love Girl," "Strawberry Bubblegum," "Tunnel Vision") and the doting lover ("That Girl," "Mirrors," "Blue Ocean Floor"). Only "Let the Groove Get In," which celebrates the revelry and mindlessness of a night out, offers anything substantively new. The album begins cheerily, and you might even be happy to hear Timberlake so sparkly-eyed and up-on-love. You'll quickly come to miss the vindictive Justin, however; there's nothing on here as deliciously vicious as "Cry Me a River" (Justified) or "What Goes Around.../...Comes Around" (FutureSex/LoveSounds).
Experience falters, too, when those wonderfully tasty grooves pulse through their seventh, eighth and (occasionally) ninth minute, their snappy synth and muted harmonies having lost their once-catchy luster. While "Pusher Love Girl" and "Strawberry Bubblegum" do just enough to keep listeners guessing, Timbaland should have faded out tracks like "Spaceship Coupe" and "Blue Ocean Floor" well before their routine, late-song reprises.
Timberlake has shown a tendency to give into every impulse, both good and bad. While his instincts often betray him (Britney, acting), his celebrity resilience is unmatched. We may forget about The 20/20 Experience a few months from now. But Justin Timberlake? He's here to stay.
1. Pusher Love Girl
The Gist: Justin's crush—"a pusher"—deals in love, not drugs. He's high on her love.
What Hits: The swooning background singers and big band vibe complement JT's vocals with a classic, satisfying touch.
What Misses: Timbaland nails the mid-song thematic transposition, but it's far less fresh here than it was on FutureSex/LoveSounds. The high-on-love metaphor's also been done 317 times in the last year alone.
2. Suit and Tie
The Gist: Justin, skirt-chaser extraordinaire, keeps it classy with a suit and tie, even when picking up the ladies. He'll teach her "a few things" about love.
What Hits: The flip from slow intro to up-tempo verse is quintessential JT at his smoothest. Jay-Z's interlude brings an ounce of lyrical depth.
What Misses: Only mildly catchy, "Suit and Tie" wears out well before its final verse.
3. Don't Hold the Wall
The Gist: JT woos a lovely lady who's just had her heart broken. He wants her out on the dance floor, not sulking by the wall.
What Hits: Begins with a tribal, percussive groove that gradually transforms to a more traditional night club trance, though it remains fairly original.
What Misses: The promising intrigue of "don't hold the wall" (a song about taking risks? following your dreams?) devolves into typical JT narcissism ("I heard your girlfriend tell you, you could do better / Well, I'm the best ever")
4. Strawberry Bubblegum
The Gist: JT fell for a girl the instant she said "Hey" while "smacking that strawberry bubblegum." He'd like to run away with her.
What Hits: Featuring one of the subtlest mid-song transpositions on the album, "Strawberry Bubblegum" moves from infatuation to a (tasteful!) sensual groove.
What Misses: Symptomatic of the album as a whole, no one line is particularly good ("Baby don't change nothing / Because your flavor's so original")
5. Tunnel Vision
The Gist: JT's so obsessed with a girl that he's got tunnel vision for her. He doesn't even see anyone else.
What Hits: Timbaland adds all sorts of gloss, digital effects, and syncopated percussion to save an otherwise tedious song.
What Misses: Sporting the worst, most insipid metaphors on the album, Justin sings line after line of drivel. ("Just like a movie shoot / I'm zooming in on you")
6. Spaceship Coupe
The Gist: JT has a "spaceship coupe" that can take him and one lucky girl to the moon.
What Hits: The most ridiculous track on the album, it ends up working because JT doesn't take it seriously. (I think)
What Misses: This should have been a silly, 3-minute intermission from the more complex stuff. Instead, JT squeezes out seven trite, painful minutes.
7. That Girl
The Gist: JT doesn't care what everyone says: he's in love with "that girl."
What Hits: The classiest, most traditional sounding track on the album, Justin brings a New Orleans Big Band feel, with some smart, tasteful background vocals.
What Misses: While it's a welcome departure for JT within the album, the format itself is pretty familiar.
8. Let The Groove Get In
The Gist: It's a night out on the town and everyone's dancing. JT sings about letting go and letting the "groove get in."
What Hits: The song's message—while simple—breaks from the love-obsessed tenor of the rest of the album. Plus, the tribal, batucada beat strikes just the right tone.
What Misses: JT might begin to tap into the bacchanal liveliness of a night out, but he still remains stubbornly near the surface.
The Gist: JT sings to a woman who's his mirror: the other, necessary part of him.
What Hits: The Final Countdown-inspired intro with electric guitar and synthesizer seems to announce "This is one of the featured tracks of the album!" It's cheesy but it works.
What Misses: I'm not sure the metaphor--an odd twist on the lover as puzzle-piece analogy—actually works. "You're my mirror / My mirror staring back at me / I couldn't get any bigger / with anyone else beside"
10. Blue Ocean Floor
The Gist: A ballad to a lover about getting lost with her at the bottom of the ocean.
What Hits: Featuring by far the most compelling lyrics on the album, "Blue Ocean Floor" might actually leave you pondering love, loss, and loyalty.
What Misses: Or it might not. The song doesn't quite make sense, and outside of puzzling lyrics, you'll be checking your watch with two minutes to go. It's as if JT wanted to say, "See, this is what happens when I venture outside of my catchy, seducer shtick."