Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
And so it was decreed, it’s cool to listen to R&B again.
A string of moderate to highly acclaimed albums by artists such as The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Miguel have brought the genre back to the forefront with unusual charms such as thematic depth, dark atmospheres and nostalgic production.. So where does Justin Timberlake’s ambitious 20/20 Experience fit within this context? Well, it’s certainly a spectacle.
Optometry puns aside, Timberlake has clearly made a conscious effort to make the album more visionary (oh, woops). A need to break free from his boy-bander *NSYNC perception was shown in previous solo albums Justified and Futuresex/LoveSounds, the latter especially proving to be an iconic genre-bending piece of work and my personal Year 6 jam. On 20/20, the trend continues, and these songs are remarkably elevated from the usual 4-chord pop songs, incorporating elements of neo-soul and 1960s pop orchestration.
Musically, perhaps the thing that sticks out the most about this album is the sheer abundance of hooks: little riffs that reel you in so well it’s almost like walking into a fishing store. Each song feels meticulously crafted, and the two Timbers – Land and Lake – have clearly worked hard to make sure that every song is slicker than an oil spill. Despite this, the album remarkably manages to rarely seem overproduced. Almost every harmonic flourish, be it a small trill or a hook centrepiece, is very tastefully inserted and adds a great deal to the songs. For instance, take the three-note fill performed by the strings after each cry of “I got that tunnel vision for you” in “Tunnel Vision,” or the gorgeous self-harmonisation in second single “Mirrors”.
20/20 is a very lengthy record, particularly for a pop album; clocking in at around 70 minutes, it may be troublesome to those that don’t have the time or patience to leg the auditory marathon. Most tracks exceed the six minute mark, and have elongated intros and outros. Most of the time the lengths are Justified: “Strawberry Bubblegum,” a highlight of the album, features a mellow outro that twists the song in a completely different direction while still retaining musical motifs of the main portion. In contrast, “That Girl,” a Motown-inspired jam, contains a contrived bit consisting of a Senor Chang sound-alike introducing the song as performed by “JT and the Tennessee Kids”. It isn’t necessary.
The album is not without its missteps. The biggest instance is placing the two worst songs of the record at the start and back to back. “Pusher Lover Girl” struggles to maintain momentum, only exacerbated by its 8-minute running time. “Suit and Tie” is on the most part pleasing, featuring a colourful collection of Under-The-Sea-esque melodica. This is then marred by Jay-Z’s seriously piss-poor verse: his flow is horrendously lazy, and there’s a real feeling that he was included on the track just for more star appeal.
You won’t find many good lyrics on here either. Most are banal, dwelling on clichés relating to love: woman as a drug, unattainable woman, woman as an alien, etc. “Let the Groove Get In” contains the lines “Are you comfortable right there, right there? / Let the groove get in there, there, right there,” repeated 36 times. Better lyrics would have made for a much better album; though as things stand, they don’t ruin it.
These gripes are all outweighed, however, by the sheer quality of the majority of the tracks. “Don’t Hold the Wall” has a Middle Eastern sounding theme that is stylistically similar to the Turkish instrumentation on previous hit “What Goes Around…” Closing track “Blue Ocean Floor” deserves a special mention for being perhaps the only lyrically interesting song here. It’s a beautiful song with a sublime reversed piano loop that perfectly synergises with imagery of being submerged within the sea. Kudos must go to Timbaland and Timberlake for creating such a compelling piece of music: the pop acumen of Timbaland makes for pristine production that drives the album and provides excellent cohesion, and JT’s voice is simply enthralling.
The album has certainly fulfilled my expectations following his seven year musical hiatus. I wouldn’t rate it 20/20, but it certainly lives up to its name as an experience. With a sequel coming out in September, it will be seen whether JT will be preserved as a paragon of pop to parallel Prince or perceived as a pop pauper: but regardless, this album is excellent. You may not see eye to eye with me, but I know I don’t need to see an optometrist.