Album Review: Justin Timberlake, “The 20/20 Experience Part 1” (2013)

For a while there, I thought Justin Timberlake might be done making music.  I mean, he already had a successful run as the lead singer of one of the world’s most popular boybands.  He’s the winner of of six Grammy Awards and even four Emmy Awards.  He’s made a legitimate name for himself in the acting community, after starring in a few box office hits. And perhaps because of that last fact, it  just seemed like he had gotten to the point of his musical career where a new album wasn’t necessary- I mean, where do you go after bringing sexy back, anyway?

Then, after a five-year musical hiatus, Timberlake announced that he had been back in the studio and was working on his third album, The 20/20 Experience.  The album is another collaboration with Timberlake’s favorite producer and friend, Timbaland, as well as hip-hop producer, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon.  Timberlake’s main goal with his new disc was to explore a different sound, and to push the envelope on conventional song times- extending his tracks from a typical 3-4 minute run time, to 8-9 minutes.

Timberlake’s vision is properly realized overall- a majority of the songs have proven his growth as a musician. However, The 20/20 Experience has a few too many tracks where the execution isn’t quite as successful.

A flourish of horns and strings introduces the album’s opener, Pusher Love Girl.  Some of Timberlake’s influences are immediately made apparent in this track; the doo-wop melody brings Motown to mind, while the vocals sound like a mix of Prince and Stevie Wonder.  The sleek production is highlighted by a old-school  hiphop beat and hand claps.  The track is eight minutes long in entirety, and the second half transitions to a funky breakdown in which Timberlake actually raps, comparing his lover to a plethora of drugs (“My heroine, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA/I’m hopped up on it, it won’t go away/Now I can’t wait ’til I get you home and get you in my veins”). Though Timberlake won’t be giving Kanye West a run for his money anytime soon, he still pulls it off better than you’d expect.

Up next is the album’s lead single Suit & Tie.  It honestly took a long time for me to appreciate this track- the velvety, understated sound seemed underwhelming, particularly for a song that was touted to be Timberlake’s comeback track.  Eventually, though, the laidback R&B tune wormed its way into my subconscious- the slow burn of a beginning (with the chopped & screwed effects, no less), the catchy chorus (“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie/I’mma leave it all on the floor tonight/And you got fixed up to the nines/Let me show you a few things about love” ), and the polished production (resplendent with trumpets) all began to grow on me.  Rapper, Jay-Z (whom Timberlake will be touring with this summer), makes a guest appearance on the song, and although I think listening to Jay’s charming voice is always enjoyable,  once you take a look at the lyrics, it’s a little less so.  Jay’s rap is supposed to go along with the theme of classiness and living in excess, but I find some of the rhymes to be pretty weak(“All black at the white shows/White shoes at the black shows/…Nothing exceeds like excess/Stoute got gout from having the best of the best”…Really?  After 20+ years in the business, that’s the best you’ve got?).    Still, the track does manage to be sexy and classy, and if you could mix Frank Sinatra and swag together, this would be the result.

Don’t Hold The Wall
is a flashy club track, with Timbaland’s signature production written all over it;  I wouldn’t be surprised if the beat had been borrowed from one of Missy Elliot’s Timbaland-produced tracks.  The song’s Middle Eastern-influenced sound (I think I can even hear a sitar at one point) gives the album a bit of diversity, but that’s the only memorable thing about this washed up number.  Likewise, though Let The Groove Get In touts a definite African sound, the djembes and rattles don’t do much to distract from the monotonous melody and boring, repetitive chorus (“Are you comfortable right there, right there?/Let the groove get in, there, there, right there.”).  That Girl is an obvious throwback to Motown, and the laid-back R&B sound plays like a tribute to The Temptations.  Despite Timberlake’s warm vocals (it’s one of the few songs in which he doesn’t sing entirely in falsetto), the track doesn’t work- the lyrics about falling in love with the girl from “the other side of the tracks” are contrived, and the whole song comes off seeming almost like a parody.

My two least favorite songs are Strawberry Bubblegum and Spaceship Coupe.  The first of the two is on my least favorite list, mostly because it’s just so incredibly stale.  The chopped & screwed voice is back, but it doesn’t set the mood like it did back in Suit & Tie, and instead follows throughout the song and sounds very odd, paired with Timberlake’s delicate vocals.  The lyrics aren’t the least bit creative and instead end up being cheesy (“Cause she’s just like nothing/That I ever seen before/…And it all started when she said/Hey hey hey, smacking that Strawberry Bubblegum”) and the subject matter just seems a bit immature and juvenile, in general.  And if it wasn’t bad enough, the song drags on for eight minutes- the second half consisting of a slowed down melody and Timberlake whining, “Strawberry bubblegummmmm, blueberry lollipoppppp”.  Ugh.

Justin Timberlake - The 2020 Experience World Tour - Charlotte, North Carolina 06

This might be a slight exaggeration, but right now, I think Spaceship Coupe is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.  It’s definitely the worst song in Timberlake’s catalogue, and I just don’t know what world he was in when he thought this was a good song, let alone something worth releasing.  Musically, the mid-tempo ballad actually sounds like one of the ballads on his last album, “Until The End of Time”, which, funnily enough, I didn’t like either.  But the melody is the least offensive thing about the track- it’s really the lyrics and concept of the song that throw me off.  “I don’t want to be the one to alienate/You see, I’m trying to find an alien in you/…Hop into my spaceship coupe/There’s only room for two/And with the top down/We’ll cruise around/Land and make love on the moon/Would you like that?”, coos Timberlake during the choruses, and it takes everything I have within me not to just turn the entire album off at this point.  It seems like Timberlake is trying very hard to emulate Prince here, but Prince never wrote anything this bad (and hell, even if he did, he’s Prince!  He’s earned enough credibility and success to write whatever he wants…Timberlake isn’t even half of the way there yet), and the track really ends up seeming like a lost R. Kelly b-side- meaning, even R. Kelly (yes, EVEN R. Kelly) wouldn’t want something this absurd on his album.  Why Timberlake did, I’ll never know.

Thankfully, the disc is redeemed by two stellar tracks, both of which I’m assuming will be hit singles.  Mirrors is already on its way up the charts, as the second single from the album.  Unlike the aforementioned first single, Mirrors is a song I immediately liked on first listen- the symphonic pop ballad sounds like an update to some of Timberlake’s older singles (think “Cry Me A River” or his duet with Rihanna, “Rehab”), and the chorus is an instant ear-worm.  Timberlake’s falsetto is at his best here, as he effortlessly tackles the high notes and trills his way through the verses.  The track is an obvious ode to Timberlake’s new wife, Jessica Biel, and the autobiographical lyrics (“Show me how to fight for now/And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy/Comin’ back into you once I figured it out/You were right here all along/It’s like you’re my mirror/My mirror staring back at me”) are sentimental and heartfelt, and easily some of the most romantic ones that Timberlake’s ever written. I have to say that this is one of the few songs where the extended length actually works well; the second half of the song is broken down and becomes a mini-R&B interlude: a quiet reflection of love and a dedication of Timberlake’s commitment (“You are, you are the love of my life…/Baby, you’re the inspiration of this precious song/And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on/So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone”). Again, I’m appalled that a song like this coexists on the same album with a song about making love in a spaceship, but I digress.

I’m willing to bet that Tunnel Vision will be the third single from the album, and if it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a hit.   Timbaland and J-Roc’s production is at its finest here; the fluctuating melody and even the squeaky refrain of “I know you lyin’” give the song a funky, fresh vibe.  Timberlake’s vocals are at top form here as well- again, he works out his upper register and sounds exquisite doing so.  However, the best part of the song comes during the breakdown- the stuttering beat, paired with Timberlake beatboxing (you know, I forgot he did that…) makes for a seductive, exciting interlude.  And good luck getting that “zoom, zoom, zoom” line from the hook out of your head.

The album comes to an end with Blue Ocean Floor, a bare, serene ballad. The track has the least production of all on the album, which I suppose was deliberate; the busy synth and throbbing beats we’ve at this point grown accustomed have been replaced with a few notes on a piano and a very faint synth line that plays throughout, sounding appropriately like waves crashing.  Though the ballad is pretty to listen to, and though Timberlake’s relaxed vocals are alluring, the track mostly comes and goes without leaving much impression, making for an incredibly lackluster end to the CD.

The 20/20 Experience 
is easily Justin Timberlake’s best album to date, but that definitely doesn’t make it a perfect album.  The album’s highlights are in the catchy songs, strong production, and Timberlake’s vocals, and the low points come from the less inspired, overproduced, garish songs.  Timberlake and his collaborators had the right ideas, but it’s the inconsistent quality which withholds the disc from perfection.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg
Track List
1. Pusher Love Girl
2. Suit & Tie
3. Don’t Hold the Wall
4. Strawberry Bubblegum
5. Tunnel Vision
6. Spaceship Coupe
7. That Girl
8. Let the Groove Get In
9. Mirrors
10. Blue Ocean Floor

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuZE_IRwLNI]
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