While it’s often believed (especially by people who hate pop music) Justin Timberlake first came into his own as an artist with 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” that can really be traced all the way back to ’N Sync. If not on their debut, Timberlake at least began to come into his own on “No Strings Attached.” It was there that he began to stand out as not only the finest lead singer in the boy band scene, but one of the finest singers in music.
When ’N Sync went on hiatus in 2002 (they announced that they were officially broken up a few years later), Timberlake immediately bounced back with “Justified,” a surprisingly fantastic solo album. It had its flaws (notably the final track, a terrible ballad called “Never Again”) but, in terms of production, it was a masterpiece.
“FutureSex/LoveSounds” came out four years later. It wasn’t quite as terrific as “Justified,” but it showed Timberlake at a level of ambition that even his biggest fans must have been surprised by. It had its flaws (notably the final track, a terrible ballad called “(Another Song) All Over Again”), but it was another worthy release. It even managed to turn Pitchfork into believers (they later ranked the album at No. 79 on their end-of-decade list).
After “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” Timberlake took a break from music to pursue acting (which, as if he wasn’t perfect enough already, he wound up being amazing at) and producing. During this break, despite how talented he was in films, fans and critics still wondered when he would return to music.
Well, that time is now. At the very beginning of 2013, Timberlake released “Suit & Tie,” his first new song since he went on hiatus. Soon after, “The 20/20 Experience” was announced. The album’s title, cover and song lengths all hinted at an album that would both follow up on “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and improve it. The only thing that didn’t hint at that was “Suit & Tie.”
The song was a standard rhythm and blues track without particularly impressive writing. It seemed capable of being saved by a stellar performance or interesting production, but it has neither of those, sadly. Timberlake’s performance is incredibly contrived, while the production fails to live up to his past material. The following single, “Mirrors,” was much better, so “The 20/20 Experience” became incredibly intriguing. It was hard to tell whether the album would live up to the hype or disappoint.
Ultimately, it seems quite disappointing, featuring more duds than either of his previous albums (notably the final track, a terrible ballad called “Blue Ocean Floor”) and none of its tracks really come close to “My Love,” “Cry Me a River” or “Senorita.” Still, it does have its worthwhile moments.
The opener, “Pusher Love Girl,” is the main highlight, a drug song that’s really a love song. That’s a bit cliché, sure, but the song works, especially the outro where Timberlake emotes, “My heroin/My cocaine/My plum wine/My MDMA.” He even pronounces it “hare-oh-ine” to make the rhyme work, possibly the most entertaining moment on the whole album.
“Spaceship Coupe” is the center between the album’s bizarre ridiculousness and its undeniable catchiness. It’s such a bizarre song, but it’s fun. Somehow that’s all it needs. “That Girl,” meanwhile, is what “Suit & Tie” should have been: five minutes of basic R&B, sung sincerely and lovingly. As the album’s shortest moment, it’s also its most unpretentious.
“The 20/20 Experience” does have its moments, but it also has several songs that fall completely flat and, since they’re all so long (only “Suit & Tie” and “That Girl” are under six minutes), they can’t just be considered forgettable filler.
This may not be the brilliant, innovative record people have been expecting, but we shouldn’t give up hope on Timberlake’s ability to release one. His biggest mistake was being too sudden with his comeback and recording this album too quickly (according to his manager, Johnny Wright, “The 20/20 Experience” was recorded in just four weeks). Maybe, after spending some more time in the studio, he can–
Wait … “The 20/20 Experience” is getting better reviews than Timberlake’s previous albums.
Key tracks: “Pusher Love Girl,” “That Girl,” “Mirrors” and “Spaceship Coup.”