ALBUM REVIEW: Timberlake’s imperfect vision

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First Posted: 3/18/2013

“The 20/20 Experience” arrives on a tidal wave of industry hype and media omnipresence. With its shifting grooves and average song length of seven minutes, some publications have already started hailing this album as Justin Timberlake’s true “statement” album, an instant classic. After all, Timberlake said in multiple post-“Futuresex” interviews that the only time he’d come back to music is when he was truly ready for it. Yet when you actually sit down and separate the album from its hype, what you find is a disc that is without question the most ambitious thing Timberlake has undertaken in his career. But what surprises the most is how utterly underwhelming it is in terms of actual substance.

Let’s start with the obvious: Timberlake picked the hands-down weakest track possible to lead off the album with “Suit & Tie.” While JT no doubt wanted to show off his Timbaland-backed jazz crooner status, his voice was never his song suit, and while he could accentuate his falsetto quite well at times, using it over a track that bears such a strong sonic and stylistic resemblance to the equally-derided Jay-Z single “Show Me What You Got” is doing him no favors. Thankfully, “20/20’s” only other bit of lounge-singer shtick can be found on the much-better “That Girl,” wherein Timbaland basically does the best Daptone Records imitation he possibly can, and more or less pulls it off.

The rest of “20/20’s” experience comes in the form of the dual Timbers tackling different classic soul tropes and interpreting in their own way, even if those tropes are ones they developed themselves. “Let the Groove In” rides a near conga-like groove that proves to be just one “mama say mama saw” away from turning into another Michael Jackson revisionist piece.

While the Timberland/Timberlake partnership has produced some quality songs and at least one genuine classic (in the form of “Cry Me a River”), they have never produced anything even remotely like “20/20’s” stunning closer “Blue Ocean Floor.”

When you add it all up, “The 20/20 Experience” is indeed the sound of a much more musically ambitious Timberlake, but even with his boundary-pushing songs and numerous (and often fascinating) interludes, he is still only a somewhat decent songwriter, and it’s Timbaland who winds up picking a lot of JT’s slack. Even the most hardened of cynics have to marvel at “20/20“’s sheer musical audacity, but at the end of the day, the individual songs fail to hold up to close scrutiny.

While Timberlake has more than paid his dues and has built up enough goodwill to bend the media to his whim and have his work get hailed in some quarters as being visionary, it’s still utterly remarkable how short-sighted the songs are on an album that’s called “The 20/20 Experience.”

Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’ Rating: W W