March 13, 2013

Test Spins: Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience

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What’s notably different about 20/20 is how indulgent it all seems — James Rainis notices in his review of Justin Timberlake’s new album, The 20/20 Experience.When Justin Timberlake dropped “Suit and Tie” back in January, the Internet pissed its collective pants in excitement. To most, it was quite a reasonable reaction: after all, Timberlake is the one remaining heir to Michael Jackson’s King of Pop throne, and he’s earned that title while maintaining a certain sense of genuine likability (being a constant guest on Saturday Night Live has helped his cause) and upholding a ridiculous high standard for his solo output. While performances at the Grammy’s and elsewhere got some cynical internet denizens to call him out for biting Mayer Hawthorne’s 60s-revival schtick, the hype behind 20/20 was undeniable. At 32 years old, Timberlake owed the public another groundbreaking pop record. J.T. seems to understand this, saying about the album, “I don’t want to put anything out that I feel like is anything I don’t love. You just don’t get that every day. You have to wait for it. “

Then, with that flicker of confidence he has always exuded: “I’m ready.”

Like the overture to a Broadway spectacular, Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience is introduced by a flurry of strings. It’s a signifier of a palette shift for him and producer Timbaland: where 2006’s classic (and I truly believe that it’s earned that status at this point) FutureSex/LoveSounds used acidic synths and trance percussion to augment J.T.’s funky white boy falsetto, 20/20 infuses its songs with generous helpings of strings, horns and other jazzy touches. It’s a bit of a clichéd move for an artist to make their mature move by recalling the masters of old, but, for a lot of the album, the look fits him. “Suit and Tie” is obviously a monster of a single, burdened only by a lazy Jay-Z verse that is starting to become the norm as Jigga settles into his elder statesman role. Opener “Pusher Love Girl” is a vintage-style torch song harmonically reminiscent of Stevie Wonder. Lyrically, it may rely upon a silly drug metaphor, but Timberlake’s indelible falsetto sells it with the kind of gusto that acknowledges that, while it may be silly, it still makes for one hell of a jam.

What’s notably different about 20/20 is how indulgent it all seems. Not only does Timbaland’s production pack all sorts of lush-sounding ear candy into every nook and cranny in your headphone space, but the tracks stretch out into 7- and 8-minute territory. No expense is spared: codas introduce countless variations on hooks and instrumental tangents aplenty remind us of how beautiful Timbaland can make everything sound. The approach works when Timberlake is on-fire; bombastic wedding day jam “Mirrors” is sure to bring down the house on his upcoming tour with Jay-Z, even if it threatens to devolve into cheese during the “you are the love of my life” breakdown. But tracks like “Tunnel Vision” overstay their welcome, driving repetitive hooks into the ground well before the 7-minute running time is up.

Still, can you fault Justin Timberlake for pushing himself? After all, he still gives it his all throughout and sounds like he’s having a ton of fun. Tracks like “Strawberry Bubblegum” manage to reintroduce new hooks at several points, almost teasing the listener with the crazy amount of directions Timberlake and Timbaland can take a pop song in. The only issue is that in some instances (the interminable “Spaceship Coupe,” for instance), the pair meanders. Occasionally, songs become aimless and seem to only explore previously trodden ground. It’s unfortunate, because there are plenty of worthwhile ideas here; a little bit of self-restraint could have done wonders. “That Girl,” the record’s shortest song, is also one of its strongest. It’s direct, catchy and sonically luxuriant; a likely single, it shows the upside for what this singer/producer pairing can do when they’re on point.

We can talk all about what I wanted The 20/20 Experience to be — after all, in a year that gave us a highly successful My Bloody Valentine comeback, the bar for majestic returns has been set very high — but I don’t think that will be worth anyone’s time. What Timberlake has given us is a highly accomplished record that, barring a few missteps, can be considered an extremely satisfying return to form. While, as a whole, 20/20 can be exhausting, it proves that the Timberlake/Timbaland combo is still fertile. Let’s just hope that they can rein themselves in on their next go.

Original Author: James Rainis