Review Summary: Well? How do you like it?
Of all the maddening things said in the initial slew of reviews concerning Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience
, by far the one that irks me the most is a statement by Sputnik contributor Nathan Flynn who claimed the album “reeks of entitlement.” I mean, really? Has pop discourse fallen so far that we must chastise any popular artist who dare make us listen to songs longer than four minutes? And with reductive, Tumblr-esque insults no less! “God, Justin,
” thought I after reading those three words, “there are musicians out there who don’t have the spotlight to push the boundaries of what we’ll listen to on our radio. Check your Goddamn privilege
.” In the immortal words of greatest-twitter-ever BILL_NYE_THO, shit
got me heated.
The comment’s since been rescinded, but I can almost
see why Flynn thought he was saying something smart. The 20/20 Experience
is a gambit only someone of Timberlake’s stature could pull. Seven (!) years removed from the paradigm-shifting Futuresex/Lovesounds
arrives more as a cultural event than just another album, a Super Bowl to a pop-landscape stuck too long in the regular season. With all eyes on him, JT decided to go huge, releasing an album of gems so pristine that Googling the word ought to take you to one of the tracks (probably “Pusher Love Girl”), and on top of that
each song is decked with codas and frills that move the record outside the boundaries of contemporary radio and into the land of pop-suicide, the shadowy realm of the Context-Dependent Album
Yes, Timberlake had the gall to release that critical darling, the “album’s album,” a collection of songs that works better when all the parts are digested at once instead of individually. Take lead single “Suit & Tie,” for example: a song The New Yorker
called a “widely-considered misstep” and one I initially responded to with a resounding “meh,” I now find excelling as part of an opening suite of glamor-drenched ear-worms. Elsewhere, the 4:47 running time of “That Girl” would make it a focal point of most records, but sandwiched between 8 minute beasts “Spaceship Coupe” and “Let The Groove Get In,” it’s clear the song is positioned as the album’s interlude--which doesn’t preclude it from being a down-tempo highlight. Clearly, Timberlake’s confident we’ll listen to him do anything, considering the fine aging of his previous record and his fame as an actor and all-around entertainer. In that sense, I can see how one might say he’s doing what his fame “entitles” him to (blech!). But as I said, Justin is foremost an entertainer, and as is clear after about three tracks, The 20/20 Experience
is hardly a vanity project; the songs are simply good enough that their length becomes an afterthought. Instead of inviting us to drift and get bored, each song locks us in with a strong hook and holds us there as it fleshes each of its ideas out. You know that feeling when a song ends too abruptly? Never evoked on 20/20
. But the feeling when a song goes on too long? Only comes up a couple forgivable times. When something this good comes along, overindulgence is expected, even cherished, for how often going big works.
Think of 20/20
like a Louis C.K. stand-up routine: though the men read as polar opposites on the style spectrum, the joy for the audience is in seeing a master at his craft, the material long-form with multiple payoffs stretched over one theme rather than a series of one-offs. Justin nimbly bounces through songs about--what else?--women, at first with the leering smoothness he plays in the “Suit & Tie” video (“I--can’t--WAIT till I get you up on the floor good lookin’,” he coos, winky-face implied), then later with a revelatory admission of love in penultimate track “Mirrors.” It’s a neat little arc--one that doesn’t ring entirely honestly, granted, but if you’re looking for “the real Justin” in his music, you’re not doing it right. The Timbers Lake and Land are all about craftsmanship, and The 20/20 Experience
is crafted so meticulously that even through the few moments where it might not be as enjoyable as its half-dozen or so perfect songs, it never stops being admirable. The intense-percussiveness that Timbaland once infected all the pop landscape with is now reserved only for Justin, who envelops himself in it in “Don’t Hold the Wall,” skips around it in “Strawberry Bubblegum,” and abusively demands it in “Let the Groove Get In.” Like MJ before him, Timberlake more than provides the vehicle for a great dance record; he becomes it, effusing the charm and virtuosity that once again sets him apart from a pop world whose tricks and sugar-rushes have grown far too processed.
Which brings me to my favorite thing said thus far about The 20/20 Experience
: Sputnikmusic staffer Sobhi Youssef pushed the argument that in 2013, a record with these kinds of players and this kind of financial backing should yield a product as “polished and forward-thinking” as 20/20
listens like a Godsend as we see a yester-year pop-star emerge not in Recovery or amidst a great Circus but dressing up in a Suit & Tie, now a full-fledged auteur, so effortlessly classy and stylish you can almost hear the self-satisfied smirk that Jay-Z’s made a late-game career vocalizing. While others of his ilk may be trapped in a post-modern mess with nowhere to go but The Voice, Justin presses on, seemingly up and deciding one day to make another record and then releasing what should surely stand as one of if not the best pop record of 2013. On “Don’t Hold the Wall,” there’s a moment where the percussion drops and you hear Justin faux-sheepishly admit “Well, I’m the best ever.” With other pop artists, we might write that off as par-for-the-course braggadocio, or even get angry at the unmerited challenge to the greats. With Justin, it hardly registers because, well, yeah. With an album like The 20/20 Experience
, he’s got himself a fair claim to that title. He’s entitled to a little bragging.