I remember where I was the first time I heard Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” — in a Subway in Rhode Island, waiting for a sandwich. The synth-filled production, combined with Timberlake’s sexy yet dignified voice, earned that song, as well as the rest of 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, a place in the Incredibly Catchy Pop Songs Hall of Fame. FutureSex was long, complex, and, above all, supremely sultry.
There is no “SexyBack” on The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake’s seven-years-in-the-making return to music. In fact, the only song that would work as a radio hit, “Suit & Tie”, is the worst song on the album, as well as the least indicative of the album’s essence. What there is on 20/20 is a barrage of sprawling, suggestive trance-grooves that channel “What Goes Around/Comes Back Around” from FutureSex. These songs are — dare I say it — as epic as music from JT could be. There’re only three tracks on the album under seven minutes, and one of them just barely. FutureSex had long songs too, but they tended to drag. Not here. These songs are diverse, too: “Tunnel Vision” is nothing short of futuristic, but three tracks later “Let The Groove Get In” throws listeners into a Latin dance hall, marimbas and all. Then, in the very next track (“Mirrors”), Timberlake lays on classic synths and handclaps for a delicious and almost spiritual elegy to his beloved.
Here’s my attempt to sketch a premise for this album: JT wanted to ask new wife Jessica Biel (probably responsible for the subdued promiscuity on this album) to bed in a very special way, so he wrote ten songs that toe the line between metaphor and innuendo and asked his buddies Timbaland and J-Roc to come over and help produce what is essentially an hour-long confession of Justin’s desire. This confession takes various guises: in the album’s superb opening track “Pusher Love Girl”, JT compares love to drug addiction. In “Strawberry Bubblegum” he compares his beloved to, yes, gum, suggesting that he’d like to “smack” and “pop” her like he would chewing gum. The last song, “Ocean Blue Floor”, takes on a nautical theme, and borders directly on the beautiful. Timberlake has perfected a new sort of artistry: long and complex electro-poems that don’t care about radio, and don’t have to.
Because of this, 20/20 is not as immediately accessible as songs like “SexyBack”, and might not be as much fun. There’s much more going on here than FutureSex, though, and that’s a bold claim to make. Each song, from the near-ominous “Don’t Hold The Wall” to the soulful “That Girl” (even with its bizarre intro), has a unique aesthetic, and almost needs to be discussed individually to give a sense of how many textures there are on 20/20. Timberlake, in a word, has cleaned up his act. 20/20 finds him jumping from synthy sexual energy to complex and groovy artistry that doesn’t leave behind the exceptional vocals and production we expect from him. Score: 8.5/10.
Strongest Tracks: “Mirrors”, “Pusher Love Girl”, “Don’t Hold The Wall”, “Let The Groove Get In”, “Ocean Blue Floor”
Weakest Tracks: “Suit & Tie”, “Spaceship Coupe”
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor