Why Justin Timberlake’s ‘The 20/20 Experience’ Isn’t As Bad As You Were Told

In 2013, Justin Timberlake answered the prayers of many when he released The 20/20 Experience, a set of two albums (released six months apart) that would mark Timberlake’s return to music after a six-and-a-half-year hiatus in which he focused on his acting career, starring in films like Friends with Benefits and The Social Network.

The 20/20 Experience would be Timberlake’s first album since 2006, when he released the immortal FutureSex/LoveSounds, which gave us monster hits like “SexyBack,” “My Love,” and “What Goes Around,” all of which topped the Billboard Hot 100. That album defined what pop music sounded like for a half-decade. How could the follow-up possibly live up to that standard? Before The 20/20 Experience was even released, pessimism ran rampant. Sean Fennessey of Grantland suggested that Timberlake’s comeback was ill-advised, saying that “Timberlake has almost nothing to gain from this comeback,” while claiming that the public who had been clamoring for a new JT album would be sorely disappointed when they heard the resulting product.

When the album came out, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak echoed Fennessey’s sentiment in an article entitled “Justin Timberlake’s New Album Is As Mediocre As We Knew It Would Be,” suggesting that the album was doomed to fail (or at least to underwhelm) from the start. He gleefully tears the album to shreds:

There’s barely a sense of joy on this album – if you didn’t know already that Timberlake married Jessica Biel last year, the album certainly wouldn’t clue you in. That’s fine, not every performer needs to be confessional, but it makes 20/20’s very conscious move to maturity seem more suspect. Timberlake’s acting and general persona have overtaken his public profile (see how little time recent interviews supporting this album spend on the actual music). Here he is merely playing a smooth, soulful singer. Grown and sexy is but another role, and it’s barely deeper than his one in a sh*tty romcom like Friends With Benefits.

Ouch. But is his sentiment accurate? Was The 20/20 Experience really the mediocre sludge this review painted it as? Taste is subjective, but there’s a solid case to be made that this album contained some of the most ambitious, rewarding music Timberlake has ever recorded. Just look at album opener, “Pusher Love Girl,” eight minutes of pure joy. The song draws you right from the beginning, as a set of fluttering strings morphs into a slow, infectious groove. The payoff comes on the chorus, when Timberlake goes into his best falsetto: “SO HIGH UP ON THE CEILIN’, BABY!”

Admittedly, a lot of these songs are not Timberlake’s most accessible material. The average song length here is roughly seven minutes, and even the radio hit “Mirrors” goes on for eight minutes on the album version, when you include the lengthy outro afterward. It can be hard to get into these songs at first, but repeat listens are thoroughly rewarded. A track like “Strawberry Bubblegum” might seem a bit slow on first listen, but the more you here it, the more it hypnotizes you. The same goes for “Blue Ocean Floor,” which Jaden Smith is apparently a fan of. Really, a lot of these songs take time to grow on you, but when they do, they reveal themselves as some of Timberlake’s most intriguing material.

If the first part of The 20/20 Experience was perceived as something of disappointment, Part 2 was viewed as an even bigger bummer, taking tons of flack from critics, including Pitchfork, which gave the album a 4.5 out of 10, claiming that it suffered from “the worst trappings of self-indulgence.” Pitchfork was not alone: The second half of the album wound up with a Metacritic score of 60. Decent for a Nickelback album, but pretty low for an artist as respected as Timberlake.

Part 2 is certainly not perfect. For one thing, there’s “True Blood,” likely the worst song of Timberlake’s career. It’s basically a nine-minute slog in which Timberlake reminds us that he is, in fact, aware of the existence of the Showtime series True Blood. Elsewhere, closing ballad “Not A Bad Thing” (the only top 10 single from Part 2) is surprisingly bland for an album with so many experimental tendencies. Timberlake’s natural charm stops it from being too boring, but it’s certainly no “Pusher Love Girl.”

Still, the second half of The 20/20 Experience is a lot more rewarding that it got credit for upon its release. The warped, hypnotic “Only When I Walk Away,” which Timberlake gave a fantastic performance of on Saturday Night Live, is as memorable as anything on Part 1 , and could have even fit in nicely on FutureSex/LoveSounds. Elsewhere, the countryish “Drink You Away” could have been a disaster, but it ends up being one of the catchiest songs on the album, an excellent reminder of Timberlake’s southern roots. Finally, album opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” is a slinky jam that would have fit in quite well on Justified.

Part 2 is the weaker half of The 20/20 Experience, but it simply has too many good songs to be slept on. Both albums might have been better received if Timberlake had released them as one double album rather than two separate releases, if only because critics might have respected the raw ambition of the effort rather than judging Timberlake for the worst songs on a fairly deep project.

The 20/20 Experience was successful from a commercial perspective, but it never got the respect it deserved from critics. Perhaps it was because after so much time away from the musical spotlight, expectations for a new Timberlake album were simply too high. One might also blame Timberlake’s tendencies to write super-long songs with multiple interludes rather than the digestible pop jams people craved. At any rate, this was a better album than most people realized, and hopefully rather than being disappointed that it wasn’t as immediately catchy as FutureSex/LoveSounds, future generations will appreciate The 20/20 Experience, as a hyper-ambitious, great work that simply has some flaws.