The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake (RCA, 2013. 70 minutes)
A recent episode of Saturday Night Live was hosted by none other than Justin Timberlake, a man who can sing, joke, act, and do it all. He is today’s renaissance man. He is a performer.
The 20/20 Experience marks Justin Timberlake’s first release in seven long years. Justin Timberlake spent the better part of the decade acting, being funny, and trying to escape the negative attention that he was “trying to be black”, which, curiously enough was one of the jokes of the last Saturday Night Live episode. The success of The 20/20 Experience has everything to do with Saturday Night Live, as it is Justin Timberlake’s ability to be a performer, not just a musician, that separates him from the pack.
Unlike so many Mousketeers of his generation, Timberlake has found an untarnished reputation as both an amazing musician and a performer. The first single of the album, “Suit and Tie”, exhibits this fact. The guy can sing and dance oh so well, and that matters if you’re a performer.
The bhaṅgṛā rhythms of “Don’t Hold the Wall” remind every listener of Timberlake’s old days. Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. “Let the Groove In” brings in another beat from the Afro-Cuban tradition, eliciting the listener to hold on to the groove as best they can. The use of different beats outside of the traditional R&B genre is one of the things that also separates Timberlake as a different kind of high-falsetto pop singer.
Found the Formula
So, here’s the thing. JT has figured out the pop formula. There’s a reason Rhianna is a big deal. There’s a reason indie culture is just that: independent. The average listener likes pop, likes normal, and likes easy. Sometimes, as a listener, it’s good, perhaps preferred, to just turn your brain off and groove a bit. JT’s sensible strategy of quick, repetitive hits is a good idea! He capitalizes on the singular theme (perhaps inspired by his new wife) of “I like girl, she likes me. Yay!” The album’s theme of romantic love is hardly a new one in the pop scene, but his tunes add a lot to the already over-developed category. Tracks like “Pusher Love Girl” and “That Girl” especially tell the tale. Moreover, his track “Spaceship Coupe” tells the story of a long love-making session all the way to the surface of the moon (with some especially annoying effects, by the way). “Mirrors” also conveys pillow-talk sensuality while still using pop power at the same time—I like to think of it as a narcissistic love play anthem.
So, take away JT’s performance ability, sense of humor, and ability to dance, and what do you have? A decent album. Nothing good, nothing bad, just mostly par for the course. Personally, I expected after seven long years to have a smash hit. But, perhaps he’s just warming back up into the music world. Please don’t hear me say that The 20/20 Experience is a bad album. Far from it; it will be playing in my car for a while as it’s really fun. Coupled with his amazing dance tunes and acting (like on SNL) his new stuff is amazing. If he ever comes to my town for a live show, I’m in.
Verdict: 4 out of 5