Review Summary: 70 minutes of clarity
There’s a particular brand of progression at the heart of The 20/20 Experience
. Timberlake’s first solo outing, Justified
, which was released in 2002, demonstrated the young pop star could hold a tune, and also demonstrated some enjoyable, if a little cliché songwriting skills. Underneath all the hype, though, the release was somewhat mundane and never strayed too far from the well-worn path of pop music of the time. A similar viewpoint can be taken of sophomore effort, FutureSex/ LoveSounds
, which demonstrated a more adventurous musical direction on J.T’s part. Unfortunately, the album was rather inconsistent, despite being a well-produced and featuring some solid tracks. Now, after numerous years of remaining in the public eye but with very little actual music output, Timberlake has returned with a new album, featuring an impressively altered sound that is both heartfelt and has no shortage of clarity. The 20/20 Experience
is a new, more earnest experience that put Timberlake’s previous output and a large amount of currently producing mainstream artists to shame. Don’t be mislead, it’s still pop music; but it’s also a brilliant distillation of all the best aspects of modern RnB, replete with a cheeky attitude, joyously endearing songwriting, and a singer who is working at the peak of his, 11 years on, still flourishing solo career.
One of the first aspects that stood out to me, and one that’s been commented on by a number of critics, are the song lengths, which are somewhat long for a mainstream pop release. True, there are occasions when the runtimes bloat the songs (the outro section of 'Pusher Love Girl' stands out as a notable example of this), but for the most part, the song lengths are justified as the sound transcends multiple styles throughout a single song, perhaps beginning with a slow jams-esque tune and evolving into a more concentrated, soulful RnB effort later on. Justin's delivery is also a standout feature on the album (it’s no secret that the impressive vocal acrobatics on his previous releases were the highlight). This time around, however, the music is also up to scratch, complementing the tone of Timberlake’s voice brilliantly. Unfortunately, There are a few occasions when the swing-style high-pitched arpeggios take over, and it feels like Timberlake is just showing off. This is not a major flaw however, as it is all in keeping with the sassy tone of the album.
Out of all the songs on the album, none stand out as weaker; the album hits a plateau in the first track and continues along it to craft a pleasantly consistent release. Songs such as ‘Don’t Hold The Wall’, and ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ show Timberlake returning to his roots, playing a similar disco-influenced soul sound to the one present on FutureSex/ LoveSounds
. Both songs work well, particularly the production on the former which is reminiscent of earlier single ‘My Love’. Similarly, ‘Mirrors’ features an underscored beatbox-style synth that is very much a throwback to first album single, ‘Cry Me A River’. Other songs, such as ‘Let The Groove Get In’ utilise a catchy big-band style swing tune coupled with Timberlake’s infectious chanting. Despite the musical changes present in each song though, the album itself doesn’t have quite as much variety as it might. It’s understandable, as the theme throughout the album is so prominent and consistent, and J.T’s vocal performance sells the release as a whole, but a more adventurous touch, especially in terms of the album’s production, could elevate this to an even higher status than it already holds. Thankfully, this is a relatively minor quibble, as in an album of this scope, musical versatility is present every second. Perhaps, just perhaps, it could have be a little better realized.
The progress can be observed throughout the album best in terms of the music itself, which is both diverse and ambitious, and though it is maybe a little more ambitious than it ought to be, it’s still an admirably fresh effort. The most enduring theme on the album is that of love, or, more specifically, romantic love, and at a time when pop music is either concerned with the more provocative theme of sex or idealistic love (a la Bruno Mars), this is a welcome addition. It allows J.T a more human touch and his expression when comparing the love of his woman to the effects of various drugs is one of anguish and simultaneous intoxication, which really helps to sell the message of ‘love doesn’t always run straight, but when it does, it’s totally worth it.’ Certain clichés can still be found in the lyrical content, which do struggle to live up to the grandiose yet intimate feel of the music. Lines like, ‘we can’t take an airplane, where we’re going is way too high, going where the day sky turns into night’, and ‘I can’t deny the way you caught my eye, I mean something struck and refilled the sky’ show that Timberlake’s lyricism has not developed all that much since Justified
. Despite this, the contrast that is present between the lyrics and the music work together almost in a paradoxical tandem, with lyrics that may be considered tacky attaching themselves to the almost postmodern sound of the music. The final result is a memorably broad work that is as enticingly togged up as its’ second song suggests.