Album Review: Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience

[RCA; 2013]

There’s a singular telling aspect of how fans of pop music are willing to receive Justin Timberlake that goes the farthest in explaining why America remains obsessed with him: no matter how closely the man positions himself to the absurd, we are willing to forgive him the fact that our collective chains are being pulled for the sake of perpetuating his fame.

And trust me, on JT’s new album, The 20/20 Experience, absurdity is just a hair’s width away at all times. If we’re meant to laugh at the now five-time host of Saturday Night Live when he dresses up like a giant block of tofu, why aren’t we also meant to laugh when he croons ridiculous lines like “I want to find the alien in you,” as he does on the 20/20 slow-grinder “Spaceship Coupe?” Whether you actually take the line as a serious come-on or a playful non-sequitur, your final reaction is the same: “Ah, that’s just Justin being Justin again.” His appeal exists in dualities (multitudes, really) and it’s now impossible to shake one aspect of his celebrity free of the others. We love this guy when he makes shitty movies. We love him when he makes good ones. And we love this guy even when, after a six-year musical hiatus, the first tune we hear from him is a tad underwhelming.

To wit: the tao of Justin Timberlake is revealed in how “Suit & Tie” was received. Played initially through a set of tinny laptop speakers and even later through decent iPod headphones, it’s a totally “Meh”-inducing experience. But find yourself in a club, or even a dimly lit room with ten of your best friends and a glass of whatever in your hand, and it’s hard to imagine wanting to dance to anything else. Our biggest pop stars are enjoyed collectively because they’re designed to please on a grand scale. And if that’s the only prerequisite for measuring the amount of enjoyment found in The 20/20 Experience, then the album can’t be viewed as anything but a resounding success, absurdity and all.

Which isn’t to say Timberlake took the path of least resistance on this record. There are no Calvin Harris four-on-the floor workouts here. Nothing meant to simply tantalize club and wedding reception goers for the next three months before dissipating into the broadband ether. For 20/20 Justin unearthed one Timothy Mosley’s business card, a producer whose ten year run beginning in 1996 influenced popular R&B on the same scale as Babyface in the late-‘80s to mid-‘90s. Though his output has waned in the last six years, Timbaland’s beats are still built to last and his statement of relevance on 20/20 is emphatic.

“Suit & Tie” splashes a two-step rhythm and old-fashioned horn section with a dripping Southern rap crawl, mid-song. Album opener “Pusher Love Girl” reinterprets blue-eyed soul for the electronic age, especially in the track’s final three minutes where Justin’s vocals are chopped-up, digitized and set to a funky electro march. And “Don’t Hold The Wall” and “Tunnel Vision” contain familiar Timbaland elements: vaguely Middle Eastern melodies, offbeat flourishes like cricket sounds and babies cooing, and thick, double-time rhythms created by both drum machine and human beatbox. The joy in Timbaland’s music is in the discovery and on these tracks he leaves plenty to think about even after multiple spins. In fact it’s the producer who gets the last word much of the time, as more than half of the songs extend into lengthy postludes after the bulk of Justin’s vocal work is done.

20/20 is only ten tracks long but it has the running time of a 17-song album if you were to break it down into standard chunks of consumable pop. Again, this is JT doing what he wants to do, convention be damned. The format works for the most part, though “Strawberry Bubblegum”’s eight-minute running time only succeeds in reminding us that the song’s eponymous candy confection is a metaphor for a woman’s privates. Indeed, the songwriting on 20/20 leaves much to be desired. Justin’s cheesy space-lover routine on “Spaceship Coupe” threatens to overshadow Timbaland’s expert homage to Zapp and Parliament, and “Pusher Love Girl” falls back on the tired lover-as-addictive-substance motif. But we don’t really visit JT records to be knocked out by provocative songwriting. Frank Ocean might have a gutsier pen game–and Usher more moves and Miguel more sex appeal–but 20/20 is easier to fall into a groove with than any of the best contemporary pop/R&B albums out right now.

The degree to which we’re enamored with pop’s biggest stars is directly proportional to how vigorously we shake our heads when they do something absurd. Whether it’s Kanye dressing up as the Yeti in London, or Beyonce making pained, incontinent sex faces at the Superbowl, it’s not an empirical amount of love or disdain that confirms their worthiness, it’s the severity of our response in either direction.

If Ye is the emotional one, and Bey is the fabulous one, then Justin is the one who makes everything look the easiest. He’s that buddy of yours from freshman year who picked up skiing the first day on the mountain; the one who you never knew rapped, but once saw hop into a cypher and undress the local battle rap champion with 16 bars off top. Justin is that dude who conjured up 20/20 seemingly out of midair: Two months after being announced, it was streaming on iTunes and, oh, by the way, there’s a part two coming later this year. Justin is the one who built a power ballad for the 21st century (“Mirrors”), out of a juvenile simile, rudimentary chord progressions, and fart noises. Did you ever think a song would exist that might appeal equally to fans of Coldplay, Chicago, and Biz Markie? Well, Justin Timberlake just made one, and he’s daring you to tell him there’s anything else he can’t do.