Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, his third solo album and first since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, was released on iTunes last night. We’ve now listened to the album four times all the way through, and took down notes with each listen. Like we did with David Bowie’s The Next Day, and in lieu of a normal Five Albums feature, here are five next-day thoughts on The 20/20 Experience.
1. It’s not really a pop album
Timberlake may have to hand his Prince of Pop moniker over to someone else, because while The 20/20 Experience will be a massive, high-selling pop hit, possibly the year’s biggest, it doesn’t really fit into the cushy confines of the genre. The shortest song on the album, “That Girl,” comes in at nearly five minutes, while most tracks range six-to-eight-minute range. Not only that, but Timberlake, with much help from producer Timbaland, has crafted 20/20 so that it’s not instantly gratifying, or at least in the way we’d expect a former-boy band member’s solo album to be. The whole thing’s one long, soulful, rhythmic jam session, like if the Rat Pack covered Miguel (not the other way around), with Motown horns and Timberlake’s dapper falsetto at the front of the mix, and the more modern flourishes, like the vibrating static on “Spaceship Coupe,” buried underneath. Timberlake brings the new, Timbaland brought the old, and together, they’ve made an album both Ol’ Blue Eyes and Michael Jackson could enjoy.
2. You’ve already heard the album’s best songs
Those, in order, would be the sentimental “Mirrors,” slinky “Pusher Love Girl,” and wheezing Jay-Z-assisted “Suit & Tie,” not coincidentally the album’s first two singles and the song Timberlake performed at the Grammys. This is neither criticism nor praise for 20/20 as a whole — why shouldn’t the album’s best tracks be the ones Timberlake and his team push the most? It’s more a notice that with one exception, you’ve already heard the best of 20/20.
3. “Strawberry Bubblegum” is the new “Digital Get Down”
With no due respect to “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay),” “Digital Get Down,” an instantly dated track about “bouncing from satellite from satellite” from ‘N Sync’s second album, No Strings Attached, is far and away the worst song Timberlake has ever been associated with. But “Strawberry Bubblegum” isn’t far behind. It goes on for an endless eight minutes, with a mid-song detour through “Dick in a Box” territory, and the bizarrely creepy track is neither as sweet nor as sexual as Timberlake wants it to be. Timbaland’s production bubbles, but never sounds bubbly.
4. “Let the Groove Right In” is JT’s Michael Jackson song
It’s basically a Quincy Jones-indebted cover of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something’.” That’s a very good thing.
5. “Blue Ocean Floor” might be the most interesting thing Timberlake’s ever done
20/20‘s closer doesn’t have a beat or even a hook; it’s a woozy daze along “that blue ocean floor,” where “you fall and you fall in the deep,” but he’ll always find you. It’s remarkably visual, though what makes “Blue Ocean Floor” stand out is how much it sounds like Frank Ocean, right down to the cassette tape loop that the Odd Future member prominently employed on Nostalgia, Ultra. (There’s a bit of James Blake and Radiohead in there, too.)
It’s a neat trick JT’s pulling off. He’s put in his years as a pop musician, but now, he’s earned enough clout where he can record and release whatever he wants, namely, things that 2013 pop stars aren’t usually allowed to do, like release a neo-soul album with three songs over eight minutes. The 20/20 Experience isn’t an instant classic, but the man who once brought sexy back is now doing the same with pop music’s dignity.