Thursday, March 14, 2013

Album Review: Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

Album Grade: A
10 years ago, who would have thought the “Cry Me a River” kid would have done this? In a little over a decade, Justin Timberlake has gone from a former boy-bander with a fresh haircut, trying to convince the world that he is to be taken seriously, into the savior of pop music. In the interim between Justified and now, Timberlake has reminded the world that Timbaland is a producer-de-jeur, released one of the most iconic pop records of the 2000’s (the genre-bending FutureSex/LoveSounds,) and purchased MySpace. Needless to say, he’s come a long way from his “Bye Bye Bye” days.

What’s hugely important to note is how much his music has changed even from his FutureSex days. There are no sleeked-out, overtly sexual songs like “My Love,” or “SexyBack,” nor are there any head-scratchingly illogical moments- save for a gratuitous cameo from Jay-Z on lead single “Suit and Tie,” that was surely included, in a rare break of integrity, to help drum-up excitement for the album. However, he has evolved beyond that format; fast-paced club beats no longer do him justice. Similarly, the comparatively cookie-cutter piano arrangements from the “LoveSounds” portion of his last outing could not possibly support the falsetto that he absolutely owns. The 20/20 Experience is new music for a new decade, making FuturesSex merely a prototypical template for what was to come.

If The 20/20 Experience had been released at the start of the decade, it would have been considered a genre-smashing magnum opus. However, with the rise of Frank Ocean’s self-absorbed, pensive R&B last year, many have already experienced the atmospheric R&B that Timberlake now dabbles in. That said: Timberlake’s brand is far more engaging and elaborate than Ocean could ever hope to be. His lyrical depth will never scratch below the more creative side of flirtation, but it’s not about what he says - it’s how he says it. The vocal range displayed on The 20/20 Experience is staggering. On “Pusher Love Girl,” he channels Prince, his falsetto croons reaching sky-scraping heights before he dips into his natural range for an extended metaphor outro. All of the interim levels are covered in due time, with Timberlake consistently stretching himself to his limits before calmly reeling it back in.

It’s easy to be offended by the length of the songs when first approaching the album. After all, only one dips below five minutes and many seem to be excessively long, with occasionally gratuitously long bridge and outro sections being the norm. Colored by repetition, songs like “Strawberry Bubblegum” and “Let the Groove Get In” give the impression that Timberlake is phoning it in. The obscene, for a pop album, length- with the average song clocking in at an unthinkable 7 minutes- appears masturbatory at first; an absurd acknowledgement of his own talent and power.

This, of course, would be an unfair assessment of the album. Timberlake is too reputable, too intent on entertaining, to release anything less than gold standard material. For as shallow and obtuse as some songs are- “Spaceship Coupe” is a downright ridiculous premise that is just playful enough to work- he is still a consummate professional. He even sheds his playboy image for eight pristine minutes on “Mirrors,” an ode to his wife, Jessica Beal. Working with the accompaniment of a full band, under the JT and the Tennessee Kids moniker that was debuted at the Grammy’s, Timberlake is a sleeker reimagining of Marvin Gaye. When Timbaland has a more obvious hand in the production, he’s an update of, well, himself.

Although Justin Timberlake is the one with his name on the cover, nearly equal credit should be given to Tim Mosley and his collaborator Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon for mixing some of the most impressive soundscapes in recent memory. Timbaland proved that he had the Midas Touch for club-friendly jams back in the 90’s, but what he does on The 20/20 Experience is an event in itself. The vaguely Asian rhythms of “Don’t Hold the Wall” and the African-inspired “Let the Groove Get In” are both strangely danceable while the mesmerizing, poignant closer “Blue Ocean Floor” calls for undivided attention. Even more typical beats, like those on "Suit and Tie" and "Tunnel Vision," are astounding in their layering and quality. The production is lush, drawing from a variety of sources and samples to create a distinct identity for each song and although the beats are impossibly complex, they all sound harmonious: a jigsaw collection united by Timberlake’s pipes.

So: what do we make of the title? The cover implies that it is related to the supposed pinnacle of vision, and I would like to believe it has to be with having a fresh set of eyes. After taking a six year hiatus to work on movies and conduct business ventures, Justin Timberlake was able to return to music and make it the way he wanted to, everyone else be damned. This is the record from a man on a mission, a mission to do it the right way. Well kudos, Mr. Timberlake, because that mission is certainly accomplished.          
1. Pusher Love Girl
2. Suit and Tie 
3. Don't Hold the Wall
4. Strawberry Bubblegum
5. Tunnel Vision
6. Spaceship Coupe
7. That Girl
8. Let the Groove Get In
9. Mirrors
10. Blue Ocean Floor

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