Album Review: Justin Timberlake’s ‘The 20/20 Experience’

With “The 20/20 Experience,” Justin Timberlake has made a work that is a complete anathema in Pop World 2013: an album that is meant to be listened to from start to finish.

As a whole, “The 20/20 Experience,” out March 19, is a deeply retro effort that pays homage to Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Frank Sinatra in both music and sentiment. However, Timberlake and producer Timbaland don”t get stuck in the past and, as much as the album is influenced by musical icons of yore, it is determined to look to the future as well.

If Timberlake is feeling the hot breath of newer, fresher artists like Bruno Mars -his most obvious heir apparent- or Frank Ocean breathing down his neck, he doesn”t show it. Quite the opposite: Timberlake infuses “The 20/20 Experience” with a disarming, radiant confidence that occasionally surpasses the material. He”s a one-man charm offensive and an electrifying performer, as his most recent stint on “Saturday Night Live” showed.

At its best, “The 20/20 Experience” feels like its own invention: an exploration into what it means to take the traditional confines of pop and then see how far those boundaries can be pushed. It”s not a new idea for Timberlake: on 2006″s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” he and Timbaland set about deconstructing pop, only to construct a new monster, filled with shape-shifting songs and musical interludes. To keep with that theme, at its worst, “The 20/20 Experience”  feel like sets of unfinished lab experiments stretched far too thin. Every one of the 10 tunes here creeps up to or surpasses the seven-minute mark, often to their own detriment.

The album opens with “Pusher Love Girl,”  a sultry, slinky stunner that finds Timberlake breaking out his clarion clear falsetto early. Over hand claps and horns, he pays homage to the female that means more to him than any drug. She”s his “hydroponic jelly bean.” Is there anyone else on God”s green earth that could pull off calling someone that? Like many of the songs on “20/20,” about five minutes in, “Pusher Love Girl” morphs into a swirling interlude as he chants, “I”m just a junkie, a junkie for your love.”

Other highlights include first single, the mood-setting, Jay-Z-starring “Suit & Tie”; and the delicious “Strawberry Bubblegum,” a Prince-inspired pop confection laced with plenty of innuendo. He”ll be your blueberry lollipop, baby, and he”s going to love you till “we make it pop.”  Current single, “Mirrors,”  is a pop marvel, and, as he”s shown by his television performances with his band, JT and the Tennessee Kids, it only gets better as it is performed live. The gorgeous melody features layer upon layer of Timberlake”s vocals stacked upon each other until it feels like they can reach the heavens.

“Mirrors,” and possibly every song on here,  is an ode to Timberlake”s wife, Jessica Biel. The album is a veritable love letter to her, but an honest one: one that combines carnal urges with the fears and tribulations of what it means to be a man in a serious, committed relationship. On the soulful slow jam “Spaceship Coupe,”  he”s ready to get his groove on in their “space lover cocoon” as they trip the galactic light fantastic.  On  the horn-drenched, old-style “That Girl,” introduced by an emcee as if he and his band are playing in a club in the ’60s, Timberlake sells every note of devotion. The album closes with the underwater, dreamy, sound-effect laden kaleidoscope of “Blue Ocean Floor,” which sounds like something from Frank Ocean”s “Channel Orange.” The song is a druggy, slo-mo, strange slice.

While there are some gems on “The 20/20 Experience,” the listeners” reactions will depend largely on how big a journey they are willing to take. Too often, Timberlake–and Timbaland– forego any semblance of a hook or a catchy chorus (in fact there”s nary one to be found on the album) for experimental sonic landscapes.  They confuse repetition with creating an actual song. On “Let the Groove Get In,” which will make an incredible dance remix, the African and Latin rhythms enchant and captivate, but they never go anywhere or actually do anything.

It”s a trippy record and a daring one, but very few of the songs deserve the over-extended treatment they receive. Most of the tunes would have greatly benefitted from some trimming, even if that meant delivering a 40-minute album instead of a 70-minute one.

The consistent thread is, of course, Timberlake”s self-assured vocals. Whether he”s singing in falsetto or in a lower register or rapping or vocalizing non-sensical words, his delivery sounds never less than inspired. In a way that few contemporary artists have, Timberlake has a clear command of what works for him and he”s a thrilling vocalist. But in hindsight, “The 20/20 Experience” could have used a little more focus.