Review Summary: Optometry puns aside, 20/20 is a turning point in mainstream pop and R&B
It's convenient that just as I post a review decrying the emergence of idiotic terminology that essentially describes a modern revitalization of contemporary R&B, Justin Timberlake releases a profound manifestation of this very concept. The 20/20 Experience
is a retaliation to the pressure placed on major-label R&B and pop as a whole over the past two years by a burgeoning indie underground. And it succeeds at this very goal; the millions of dollars available to major label artists should
yield a product this polished and forward thinking. It's a testament to the tenets of capitalism that competition breeds innovation, and for years these big labels had none. So hats off to the recent, upstart independent label innovators, for without them The 20/20 Experience
would not exist.
Case in point - a year ago Frank Ocean's "Pyramids" showed the world what R&B could be outside of its standard compositional confines; up to now, the 10-minute mark was a rarity in the genre. Temporally, Timberlake and Timbaland take this influence and flip the core idea of the short, sweet pop hit on its head. Not only do they warp each and every track's coda to only remotely resemble the original tune, but they effectively transition and finish every
idea. Opener "Pusher Love Girl" juxtaposes intravenous drug dependance with love while introducing Timberlake's beautiful falsetto at the apex of his game. But instead of ending the updated yet classic soul jam at the five-minute mark in-step with typical trends, Timbaland introduces his hallmark penchant for futuristic hip-hop beats. The outro here may seem bloated to many, but really enhances the atmosphere and cross-genre feel the Timbs are shooting for, while building on and completing the ideas Frank Ocean brought forward with Channel Orange
. The thing is, every single track on The 20/20 Experience
is like this, making it a truly genre-blending affair under the slick guise of an expertly produced contemporary R&B record.
Thematically, critics have dissected the whole of the record with a microscope instead of stepping back for a macro view. Grantland's Steven Hyden is one culprit with his hypercritical and nit-picking "20 Observations" article. The best explanation undoubtedtly comes from Sputnikmusic user Joe McGlone analyzing the very essence of The 20/20 Experience
with the very same optometry metaphor - "The 20/20 experience is [about] getting perceptual lenses set and the process of realizing what love truly is", achieved through scenes that evolve from the physical infatuation of "Pusher Love Girl" to the sweet obsession of "Space Coupe". Hyden somewhat makes up for his easy-way-out criticism by denouncing the liberal use of labeling Timberlake a "luxury brand". Agreed, a luxury brand with a negative connotation is ridiculous in this scenario; if Timberlake was truly out of touch with his audience, the audience would retaliate. But what if a luxury brand can be construed in a positive sense here from a meta perspective? As already mentioned, the players and quality involved are what the audience should
expect in 2013 from an LP with financial backing.
Timberlake realizes this potential and puts forth a well-studied, dynamic affair, nodding at classic and contemporary influences alike. And while Timbaland may be considered by many as a relic of last decade (his more recent recordings really emphasize how his old style hasn't aged well), 20/20
is also his swan song and proof of the widely embraced industry superlatives he proudly displayed in his pop productions. "Tunnel Vision" shows off these still-existing chops with a drum heavy, syncopated backbone amidst frenetically shifting bass melodies, sweeping orchestrations, and vacuous synths that all coalesce into a fuzzed out boom-bap. But just as Channing Freeman noted in his featured review, "Blue Ocean Floor" surely stands out as a grand finale. A downtempo homage to Tom Krell's productions under the How To Dress Well moniker, Timbaland manages to avoid obsession with his well-polished technique and casts a spotlight on Timberlake's falsetto and closing harmonies.
As a complete package, The 20/20 Experience
will surely be remembered as one of the first of what will hopefully become a trend in popular music of releasing challenging, experimental, and expertly written material. One can only hope the tried and true methodologies of marketing trite, club-oriented tracks will ultimately disenchant listeners as they realize the possibilities of what could be, especially as the internet R&B innovators continue to force the hand of major labels globally.