It’s hard to believe it’s been just over six years since Justin Timberlake released his massively successful album FutureSex/LoveSounds. I often found myself wishing he’d release a new album during that time, especially when I’d see him in mediocre movies like In Time, Friends with Benefits and Black Snake Moan. To be fair, I rather enjoyed his work in Bad Teacher and The Social Network. But suffice to say that it was about time JT head back into the studio and create some new music of his own. I’m saying “of his own” because he has often ventured into the studio during the past several years, either producing other people’s tracks, or writing for them, and sometimes even singing on them.
Now that we can have “the 20/20 experience,” it’s not hard to see why JT waited so long to make a new album. Simply put, he was waiting until he had something new to offer the world, rather than putting out an album that would have been too similar to his previous two solo albums. People might have been eagerly anticipating another “Sexy/Back,” but if he’d given it to them then they would have likely tired of it before long, complaining that it was too much like his old stuff. Suffice to say that I think he did the right thing in waiting until he was prepared to make his new album, which is nothing short of ground-breaking. A veritable game changer, actually.
I can see why JT released “Suit & Tie” as his first single from The 20/20 Experience. Not only does it feature the great Jay Z, it’s one of only two songs on the standard edition of the album that are under six minutes long. In fact, many of the songs on the album are seven minutes or longer. That alone throws the rules of pop — and most other genres — right out the window. But, yes, “Suit & Tie” was an excellent first single, the biggest reason being that it creates a solid bridge between what JT has done in the past and what he does on the rest of The 20/20 Experience, which he co-produced with Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon.
“Pusher Love Girl” opens the album with strings of the sort of grandiosity one expects from a James Bond movie theme song, but they come to a halt when the insistent, hip-hop-style beat drops and JT starts singing. Overall, the song harkens back to old school Stevie Wonder tracks like “Superstition” and “Living For The City.” It’s been said that the song uses drugs as a metaphor for his love for his wife, Jessica Biel, and that makes perfect sense. “So high I’m on the ceiling, baby, go on and be my dealer baby, ’cause all I want is you, baby,” he sings in his best falsetto, which is impressive here and throughout the entire album. Reading those lyrics, they might sound simpleton, perhaps even cheesy, but JT delivers them soulfully, making them sound as vital as the work of any great poet. “Now I’m just a junkie for your love, my heroin, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA,” goes part of the outro. The song is just over eight minutes long, but you’re unlikely to notice that. I won’t say that it feels like three minutes, but it definitely doesn’t feel like anything longer than five. The same can be said about the length of most of the songs on the album. They’re so engaging that you simply do not care how long they are. Beats shift, melodies change, the lyrics take a twist, and plenty of other things happen to keep you engaged at all times. That said, I recommend first listening to this album with headphones while lying down with no distractions. That’s the best way to let your brain absorb it and get hooked.
One of the album’s most experimental, genre-bending songs is “Don’t Hold The Wall.” Initially, it sounds like Middle Eastern music, but the percussion is pure African tribal. At times the chanting in the background sounds like a snake charmer hard at work. Then you have the crickets. Yes, for better or worse, JT apparently decided to give this song an outdoors vibe, literally adding crickets to the mix around the three minute mark to enhance the atmospherics. Fortunately, they at least chirp in time with the complex percussion. Although, sure, I’d rather they just not be here, period. After everything I’ve just stated, you’re probably going to be surprised when I say that this is ultimately a song about dancing. But, alas, that’s what it is. “Dance, don’t hold the wall,” Timbaland instructs the listener as the song begins. About five minutes into the track a more traditional dance beat comes into the fold along with some club-ready bass. “C’mon and dance, c’mon dance with me, take my hand, get on the floor,” JT sings. It’s seductive.
If the crickets bother you, then you might get annoyed by the young girl who keeps saying “I know you like it” throughout much of “Tunnel Vision,” if only faintly like a subliminal message. But it’s well-worth ignoring that minor blemish on what’s otherwise a soulful, futuristic R&B ballad with a loud, clattery beat you’d expect to hear on a Massive Attack record. “A million people in a crowded room, but my camera lenses set to zoom, and it all becomes so clear,” JT sings, pleading his case to the object of his affection. Listen to this a few times and tell me it’s not as catchy as “Like I Love You” or “My Love.” It easily rivals those tracks and then some.
The futuristic vibe of the album continues on “Spaceship Coupe,” which has the sort of scuzzy bass that you’d expect to hear on a Bjork remix. It’s both the music and the lyrics that have a sci-fi thing going on here. “Hop into my spaceship coupe, there’s only room for two (me and you),” JT croons. “And with the top down, we’ll cruise around, land and make love on the moon.” Around the 3:50 mark a sizzling guitar solo erupts, splitting the difference between Santana and Eddie Van Halen.
“Let the groove get in, there, right there,” JT sings repeatedly over rapid fire tribal percussion and shimmering horns on the album’s eighth track, which just so happens to be its first decidedly up-tempo number. The lyrics might be slightly too repetitive but on an album with so many love songs it’s refreshing to hear a song that’s simply about music. Around the halfway mark the brass takes over and if the song hasn’t already moved you to dance then that surely will. As the song winds down near the end, it takes on something of an old school Bobby Womack album vibe. It should lend itself nicely to remixes.
The standard edition of the album ends with the ambient, down-tempo “Blue Ocean Floor,” which starts off with what sounds like synth being looped backwards. “Frequencies so low, heart on a string, a string that only plays solos,” JT sings, almost whispering. The bridge goes, “Under the water you scream so loud but the silence surrounds you.” The chorus is equally poetic: “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore, and I can’t hear you through the white noise, just send your heartbeat, I’ll go down to the blue ocean floor.” It’s kind of like listening to JT recite poetry while new age music plays in the background. I suppose you could call it atmosphonica. The song barely even has any beats, and when it does they’re like quiet heartbeats. During the final minute of the song, warm strings enter the picture but before you know it they’re gone and so is the rest of the song.
The two deluxe edition bonus tracks are both under five minutes. On “Dress On,” JT croons, “I’m not in a rush, but girl I’m ready to marry you, yeah right here in the restaurant, and start our honeymoon, while you still got your dress on.” Call it the first cousin of “Suit & Tie.” Timbaland delivers a solid, full verse here, as opposed to on the standard edition of the album where he just delivers an occasional line or two. When the song ends at 4:39, it feels like it’s ended too abruptly after hearing so many long, proggy songs before it. As for the other bonus track, “Body Count,” Timbaland plays a rather significant role there, too, meanwhile JT does his best Andy Gibb impersonation. And the music immediately calls to mind “Like I Love You,” particularly when it comes to the guitars. “Make my body count,” JT sings over and over and over again. It definitely sounds like something that could have been on his last album, so it’s easy to see why he merely used it as a bonus track here. That said, its energy is contagious and its shimmering horns are nothing short of dazzling. So, yes, I would say that it’s worth investing in the deluxe edition of the album.