There are two narratives out there about The 20/20 Experience. The first comes from the out-of-the-blue nature of it’s announcement and speed of it's promotional cycle; that after six years of musical silence, Justin Timberlake called up his producers and went into the studio on a whim to record. The second, and perhaps more believable, comes from actually listening to the album. The 20/20 Experience and the campaign that surrounds it are a meticulous construction and the result of a long and obsessive creative process. It is a clear power play by a star already well entrenched in pop culture to seize both public and critical adoration, and in the process enter the realm of timeless “cool”. My take on this is actually far less cynical than it sounds, as this is a brilliant move on Timberlake’s part, and pop music never truly suffers from artifice. But make no mistake; every career move that Timberlake has made in the last year has been positioning him in a place where he could get away with making an album like this. He’s built an unstoppable fount of public goodwill from his near constant cameos on SNL and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, both of which have served as platforms for masterful live performances in advance of the album’s release. His excursions into acting (most importantly The Social Network) and new media (the beautifully designed but ultimately superfluous New Myspace) have solidified his transition from boy band heartthrob to serious adult artist. All of this has afforded him the leeway to start stretching out, and stretch out he does on The 20/20 Experience.
But length and form aren’t the only places where Timberlake’s ambition is focused. The 20/20 Experience is an album meant to prove that Timberlake has ascended into the realm of pop auteurs. Rarely if ever does this album aim to capture the “now” but instead aligns itself with sounds and aesthetics from the past and overt attempts at establishing itself as futuristic. The opening duo of “Pusher Love Girl” and “Suit & Tie” go all out in this regard, allowing Timberlake to use his deliberately strained falsetto over lush and gloriously schmaltzy arrangements straight out of old Hollywood. Even though both songs feature electronically warped rap interludes, this is clearly music for Don Draper wannabe’s.
But just as quickly as the retro mood is established, it’s wiped away in favor of genre hopping and some of the most advanced electro-R&B arrangements known to man, only returning briefly for the laid back soul tune “That Girl”. On “Don’t Hold The Wall” he and Timbaland take a strong, but standard club R&B vocal and build a hazy Raga influenced drone around it, giving the song’s sexual urgency a subtle and alluring touch. Later on “Let The Groove Get In” Timberlake steps back from the spotlight and lets an army of Latin Percussion carry the song until it shifts gears into a half time House piano romp. In between, the songs are constructed out of pretty much anything that the pair can get their hands on. Beat boxing, scat bass lines, MOOG synthesizer runs, space age pads, chopped up string samples, a lone blistering guitar solo, and a bottomless well of thick vocal harmonies.
This plethora of sonic experimentation all leads to the album’s triumphant closing suite. Although it doesn’t reach the same delirious heights as “My Love”**, “Mirrors” will no doubt go down as one of Justin Timberlake’s finest moments. It’s the kind of song that will play at skating rinks, close out proms, and soundtrack marriage proposals from now until eternity. As an ode to long-term commitment in the form of an arena sized pop song, it’s rivaled only by Beyonce’s “Halo”. Even it’s slightly redundant coda section still deals with its subject matter in a more mature manner than anyone would have ever expected from the dude from Friends With Benefits. This delicate piano outro glides perfectly into “Blue Ocean Floor”, a track that’s less of a conclusion to the record than a score playing as the credits roll.
It’s difficult to say if Justin Timberlake will successfully conquer the world on the strength of this album alone, especially since it’s likely that his public persona and winning personality will do it for him. It’s equally difficult to tell if this record will represent a paradigm shift in the way pop music, both its artsy and utilitarian sides, is made. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because as stand alone product, The 20/20 Experience is un-fuckable-with. It’s easy to conceive of Timberlake returning with a sleek economical record filled to the brim with updated versions of “Rock Your Body” or “Sexyback”, and it’s quite possible that this hypothetical album would be better than the one we’ve got. But he went for something more obtuse and delivered the goods, and for that alone we should raise our glasses to him.
*These songs, especially “What Goes Around... Comes Around” could also be a blueprint for the glut of long form R&B we’re getting these days, like Frank Ocean’s “Pyramid” or pretty much any of The Weeknd’s epics. I will admit that I might be totally off base on this one, as my knowledge of R&B history is fairly limited. If there are any other more legitimate precedents for these types of songs, please let me know!
**This is mostly because there aren’t many moments in popular music as transcendently ridiculous as T.I. saying “They call me candle guy simply because I am on fire”