Like many, I’m someone who looked forward to hearing what Justin Timberlake would be doing with his third album. It has been almost seven years since his last release, during a period in the music industry where if you don’t have new music every three months, you’re considered a has-been. Arguably, Timberlake has the luxuries of not having to bow down to the industry at all, but there comes a time when the demand is great, be it from the public or your own. Timberlake has always been someone, at least from interviews, who loves music. He had wondered why MTV doesn’t cater to more music at a time when they have become everything but music, to no avail. With the release of “Suit & Tie” as a first single, the reception from it was enough to reveal what everyone had already known: don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years.
The 20/20 Experience (RCA) is a unique album for a number of reasons. It is very much a pop album, but its roots are very much in soul and that soulful touch is never distant from these songs. It is also a reflection of the soul music and albums that once were dominant in the 1970’s. The album consists of 10 songs, what used to be considered the ideal album length, but can you release a 10-song album in 2013? If you’re Timberlake, you can. If fans felt his FutureSex/LoveSounds had songs that were too lengthy, you may want to watch out for these tracks, as seven of the songs are over seven minutes in length. That might not be the path most artists are taking today, but I’m glad Timberlake feels confident enough to go at it with these lengths, and it works very well. The Wikipedia entry for the album has Timberlake quoted as saying “If Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can do 10-minute songs and Queen can do 10-minute songs then why can’t we? We’ll figure out the radio edits later.” As someone who enjoys it when an artist explores music and themselves with a long song, this is truly ear candy.
What exactly is The 20/20 Experience? Perhaps for Timberlake, it’s a collection of songs that brings together his full vision of what good music can sound like. With Timbaland handling all of the production on this, it was already a guaranteed hit from the start although there are some fans and critics who may not have been pleased with some of Timbaland’s productions in recent years. His sound here is a mixture of what he did successfully with Magoo, Missy Elliott, and Timbaland in the late 90’s, the best of what he had done with Timberlake before, but also a few new things for this new album. It’s not reliant on sampling other people’s work, although samples do exist. A good amount of the sounds are played by him and his musicians, including what may sound like samples but are not. I found myself listening to this tracks and wondering what a 34-year old Aaliyah would have sounded like if she was alive today, whether as her own tracks or doing back-up for Timberlake. What also made these productions work is not just the sound for each song, but as one cohesive piece of work. It’s solid from start to finish, and it flows beautifully.
As for Timberlake, I’ll keep track of what people are saying on Twitter and Facebook considering who he is trying to copy these days, everyone from Robin Thicke to Mayer Hawthorne. It’s as of Timberlake wasn’t doing this since “Like I Love You” or “Cry Me A River”, if not during his time with *N-SYNC. That sweet falsetto voice is one of Timberlake’s trademarks, and he’s a champ at it throughout this album. In a track like “That Girl”, it almost sounds like he’s trying to carry himself with a Prince vibe, complete with lowered background vocals that is straight out of Prince’s multi-track playbook. Part of it also seems to be a reflection of Timberlake’s Memphis roots, if the nice Stax vibe is any indication, although I also sensed a bit of Staples Singers in the vocals too. “Let The Groove Get In” has a nice Brazilian influence too, but I also sensed that there might be an Earth, Wind & Fire groove involved as well, which might make sense if who he’s trying to cite in the song is Maurice White, who was born in Memphis. In the second half of the song, the track seems to go into a transformation (similar to a DJ segueway) between Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Runnin” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, as if he’s exploring the beauty of that period in music between 1977 and 1979. The album version of his latest hit, “Mirrors”, is eight minutes in length and while the first half shows how well his talents travel in the pop world, I love how the song seems to dig a bit deeper in it second half, with background vocals that shows hints of Missy Elliott. The album beautifully ends with “Blue Ocean Floor”, where he gets poetic and talks about a love that he hopes and wishes will be eternal:
“If my red eyes won’t see you anymore
and I can’t hear you through the white noise
just send your heartbeat out there to the blue ocean floor
where they find us no more.”
It uses the ocean as a metaphor for a mystical and mystical place for romance and companionship, as a final resting place for an everlasting love. Earlier in the album he’s comparing parts of her body to a snack (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), as well as his own (“I’ll be your blueberry lollipop”). It gets very sensual at times but it’s quite playful in its execution. Also playful is the musical games he and Timbaland play sometimes, this is very much an album that was mutually and organically created. What I found great was the play in “Tunnel Vision”, where Tim will say “I got that”, followed by Timberlake singing “tunnel vision for you”, only to lead to someone saying “I know you lyin'”, as if they’re just shooting the shit with each other but understanding exactly what they’re doing. They compliment each other quite well, and it’s the small minutiae in Timbaland’s productions that Timberlake seems to help spotlight and magnify with great results. By the conclusion of the album, the sensual and romantic tones get serious before it ends where the song itself sounds like it’s sinking underwater. Listeners may find themselves wanting to get lost with Timberlake down on the blue ocean floor.
The 20/20 Experience works on so many levels, not only as a solid pop album, but as a soul album, one that is heavily influenced by the music he has listened to over the years. One can listen to it as “two sides”, in the old way where the songs are divided evenly, in this case the first five songs being Side 1, the last five being Side 2. What I also loved is how in-depth these songs are, and the fact that I’m able to listen to two halves of a song, or hear a song with different movements within. It goes back to those classic albums by Pink Floyd, Yes, or King Crimson from the 1970’s where you were at one with the artist because you put faith in their journey and experiences expressed. Too much music these days will go through the same style and tone for four to five minutes, but Timberlake is taking these tracks on for six to eight minutes. Just as one may get used to a certain style or feeling, he and Timbaland will switch the song into something else and take you up a few notches. It sounds like Timberlake is traveling and taking the listener around the world with him, so that you can “see” what he sees, hears, and feels. In the album’s second half, the music comes off like he’s returning home, if a sense of home can be sensed through the vocal and musical stylings, and the fantastic production. In other words, Timberlake may be a world traveler to most, but home is where the heart is, and his heart seems to be in a very good place, metaphorically and realistically. If radio edits are a concern, that’s fine, for it would be easy for someone to create edits for potential singles. I feel the strength of these songs would allow Timberlake to get away with having a 7-minute hit, which is unheard of in 2013 but not impossible. The 20/20 Experience is a well-crafted album that a lot of artists will have to fully examine in order to discover and rediscover what great music is about, and can be about. This is a fantastic representation of an artist showing a few people “a good thing”.