Justin Timberlake. Arguably one of the greatest entertainers of our generation. He’s conquered music (both his debut and sophomore albums not only went multi-platinum worldwide, but were also well reviewed), movies (Timberlake is one of the few musicians to make the transition from pop star to bonafide leading man, with standout performances in films like The Social Network and Friends with Benefits) and even business (the William Rast clothing line as well as restaurants on the west coast). After a hiatus from music in which his film career truly blossomed, Timberlake has returned to what brought him to the dance in the first place: the music.
The 20/20 Experience is JT’s third album, a spot in music where artists traditionally find out whether or not they’re going to be megastars (Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad and The Clash’s London Calling come to mind). Since Justin’s already as big a star as he ever will be, that’s not really much of a concern here. Justin knows he’ll sell so he can afford to be a bit more experimental, and that’s the best adjective I can use to describe this album. Rather than straight up R&B like Justified, or R&B with a pop flavor like FutureSex/LoveSounds, this is most certainly a Neo-Soul album. Sure, some of the songs do have the mainstream appeal of previous albums, but for the most part this is a place we’ve never seen him go before.
Pusher Love Girl
This song opens the album, and immediately lets you know what you’re in for. Rather than the BPM-obsessed pop we’ve seen Timberlake’s contemporaries copy and paste onto albums recently, we’re greeted with a soulful and refreshing ballad. The new-look Timberlake has drawn comparisons to Robin Thicke, and they are very appropriate here. The interesting thing about this sounding like a Robin Thicke record is that it is so much better than anything Robin’s done of the sort. Timberlake’s a better singer than Thicke, and a less formulaic songwriter. This song feels inspired and original, whereas most of Thicke’s songs and albums don’t show too much growth. Despite being an 8 minute song, you never really want it to end. Justin croons his way through it, and while it is lyrically repetitive (that’s really a fault of the genre) , it’s hard to notice. There’s a beat flip about half-way through that, while expected, adds so much to the song. It turns from a heartfelt and funky love song into an all-out breakdown, reminiscent of something D’ Angelo and Questlove would have cooked up back in the days of Voodoo.
Suit and Tie f. Jay-Z
I thought this was an interesting placement for this song, and it startled me when I saw the tracklist. The single we were first introduced to back in January is second on the album, and while it is a nice song in its’ own right, it unfortunately doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. This song is fast paced where the rest of the album is more deliberate, it’s the only song with a guest feature, and it’s not lyrically congruent with the rest of the album. That said, this is a very fun song. You can’t help but sing along (and rap along) after hearing it a few times, and the beat is truly Timberland at his absolute best. You get this mix of ballroom R&B with chopped and screwed rap that can only work with a handful of musicians, and JT and Timbaland knock it out of the park. Jay-Z’s not Takeover Shawn on this song, but he doesn’t need to be. His verse is fun to listen to and makes sense in context.
Don’t Hold the Wall
I’ll start off by saying that this is my favorite track on the entire album. It’s a hypnotic, seductive and soulful adventure. You don’t know whether to get up and dance to the island rhythm or sit back and appreciate the subtleties of the instrumental. It’s not really a lyrical song, and it doesn’t need to be. This is moreso Justin stepping away from the spotlight and letting Timbaland do his thing. It’s like watching the Heat and seeing Dwyane Wade score 30 instead of LeBron. I expected songs like this when I heard Justin was releasing another album, and clearly they’re here. The man knows what sounds good, and that’s really all you can ask for.
This song begins a stretch for the album that really cements its status as one of the best things out right now. As Justin did for him on the last song, Timbaland steps back and lets Justin go to work. And what a job he did. He really sings the hell out of this song, much like he did on the first track. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d told me this could have been a leftover from the Justified days, because it sounds really similar sonically to what Justin was making back then. This is just smooth music, something to mellow out to while driving or relax to on a Sunday afternoon. It’s one of the things Timberlake does best and it shows. There’s a breakdown about 3/4 of the way through that sounds really Roots-esque. Hearing songs like this one performed live would be awesome, and I’m sure that Justin’s tour this summer will have a live band to emulate that kind of soulful sound.
Just like the last song, this one sounds like it could have fit right at home on one of Justin’s previous albums. Instead of Justified though, this is more in the vein of FS/LS. It’s a song that you want to dance to, but at the same time you wanna sing as loud as possible. It’s classic Timberlake, enough groove for the clubs, but enough substance for the headphones. Many people assumed that Timberlake wouldn’t be able to sustain a career after his N*Sync days, that he’d be too poppy or wouldn’t have much soul. Songs like Tunnel Vision are why that’s clearly not the case. I can see this song being a single, it won’t do as well as Suit & Tie and Mirrors, but it’s a fun song with a catchy chorus.
After four opportunities to get up and dance, we get back into the mushy stuff with Spaceship Coupe. This is another one of those songs that will make you think of Robin Thicke, but like I said before, Justin just beats him at his own game. I hear a lot of modern R&B influence in this song, it’s similar to what you’d hear from artists like Marsha Ambrosious or perhaps even Prince (shout out to the guitar solo). It’s a grownup love song, something that’s fallen by the wayside on popular radio. It’s probably my second favorite song on the album, just for the fact that it’s outside of Justin’s comfort zone, yet he still manages to deliver.
This is the shortest song on the album (just under 5 minutes), and it serves as sort of a late interlude. Timbaland introduces “JT and The Tennessee Kids”, much like Dick Clark would a doo-wop group on American Bandstand. That’s about the era this song would fall into, though updated. It’s Justin Timberlake’s take on classic R&B, and you can truly see how much of a student of the game he is. You get about three decades of music in this one song. The bassline and horns from the 50s, the lyrics from the 60s, and a pinch of funk from the 70s. This blend of styles into something so seamless and remarkable is what makes JT so special.
Let the Groove Get In
This brings us back to the dance floor, and really speaks volumes about the pace of the album. The order of the songs won’t wear you out, but it won’t lull you to sleep either. This is a fun song to listen to, and it’s one people are really gonna like. This is the type of song you play at a party and get everyone up for at the end of the night. There’s not much here lyrically, but it’s a party song. It’s about the beat and there’s plenty of it to go around.
This is the second single from the album, and it’s a truly great song. You get all the elements of what makes Justin such a joy to listen to. The classic Timbaland production, the heartfelt lyrics and of course the great singing ability. The song is long for a single (though the radio version is shorter), about 8 minutes, but it feels like about four. That’s not to say that it’s a fast paced song, you just kind of lose track of how long it is because of how much you like it. And that’s never a bad thing.
Blue Ocean Floor
All good things must come to an end, and Blue Ocean Floor is the end of this album. It’s a strange song, especially compared to the rest of the album. I personally didn’t really care for it, I feel that it drags and that it’s a bad way to end the album. It’s kind of anticlimactic to have such a solid album end with a dud like this.
All in all, The 20/20 Experience is a triumphant return to music for Justin Timberlake. Older fans will get all the things they liked from the first two albums, and new fans will find a lot to like. It’s not the best Justin Timberlake album in my opinion, but one could certainly debate it. It’s an album that further shows the comeback of R&B and soul. After getting the stellar Channel ORANGE and Kaleidescope Dream albums from Frank Ocean and Miguel last year, it’s safe to say that the genre is going back to its soulful, experimental, and downright entertaining roots.
I give The 20/20 Experience an 8.5/10.