Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

I was worried about this one, and I was mostly worried because “Suit & Tie” sounds less like a first single and more like a work of brand maintenance. Jay-Z’s indolent guest-verse was what really got the alarm bells ringing, mostly because it seemed to foretell Timberlake’s own version of Kingdom Come, Jay’s catastrophic attempt at an out-of-retirement mature album. Timberlake never formally announced a retirement the way Jay did, but he spent more time off in between albums than Jay spent during the time he was supposedly out of the game, and you could almost see the same forces at work, animating them. When Jay came back, he was sapped of all urgency and vitality and violence, instead extolling old-man values like he had this idea that this was what he should be doing. Timberlake, meanwhile, has been playing old-school bandleader on TV all month, strutting out in front of his own custom-designed bandstand with all the verve of an honors kid knocking out a homework assignment that he knows he can ace without even trying. FutureSex/LoveSounds, his last album, was a masterpiece of open-hearted, club-damaged cocaine disco, a complete miracle of a pop album that pushed song-form boundaries without abandoning the slippery, stinging melodies that had helped make Timberlake famous in the first place. After that, “Suit & Tie” sounded like a bored, years-late victory lap, and it promised nothing good. But I shouldn’t have worried. If we learn nothing else from The 20/20 Experience, let it be this: Justin Timberlake knows what he’s doing.

I should point out right now that The 20/20 Experience is nowhere near the album that FutureSex was. The hooks don’t pop and ripple the same ways, the sensibility is more staid and restful, and the whole thing seems less like JT’s attempt to remake pop music in his own image. Instead, it’s more of an opt-out, a sunny-afternoon grown-folks album about being in love and easing slowly into adulthood. Timbaland produced the entire album, which seemed like a weird decision despite his past magic with Timberlake, since the man has apparently lost all his mid-decade ability to rearrange grey matter and lapsed into his bodybuilding EDM desperation phase. But the Timbaland of 20/20 is one we haven’t heard before — a master of languorous sprawl, of warm string fugues and pillowy bass drones. Timbaland has always been a wizard of bending time, turning empty space into vivid shapes. But here, he does it in a different way, achieving a spaced-out quiet-storm dream state, giving Timberlake a millennial version of a Donny Hathaway record. Occasionally, he breaks into lusher, more ornately orchestrated versions of his old club grooves, and those are great. But his real achievement here is unlocking a mood — one of spending an entire lazy afternoon watching the Food Network with your head resting in the lap of the person you love — that he’s never come close to touching before.

This is completely Timberlake’s marriage album, his fuck-it-I’ll-be-boring-now album, in a good way. On Justified and FutureSex, he sounded like a young guy who’d suddenly realized that he could convince women to fuck him. 20/20, by contrast, sounds like the euphoric letting-go of all the stresses that come with convincing women to fuck you. Even when he’s singing about his suit, or about his sex-spaceship, or about wanting to dance, his voice sounds like a tranquil sigh. Timberlake’s tenor is a warm and fluid and expressive things, but one of his greatest strengths as a singer is the way he always sounds like a lost little kid. (This is why it was so weird to see him say “fuck” onstage in Austin so many times last weekend.) And so even when his lyrics are clumsy, which they almost always are, there’s a sweet puppydog vulnerability that sells everything completely. I wish the album had more songs like “Let The Groove Get In,” the dorkily stiff extended Afrobeat vamp that easily works as the album’s most physical track. But the album’s heart is in the retro-soul love-plea “That Girl” and the ambient string-flutters of “Blue Ocean Floor,” and those are fine places for its heart to be.

Despite its length (10 songs in 70 minutes), despite its lush and intricate production, despite its masterful and ornately planned promotional rollout, 20/20 is the first Timberlake album that feels purposefully minor in scope the first one that retreats rather than attacks. Timberlake has already confirmed that the album is simply the first half of a planned dualogy, like it was Kill Bill or something, so maybe that’s part of it. But I think it’s more that Timberlake sees casual excellence as one of the few worlds he hasn’t yet conquered. “Suit & Tie” aside, 20/20 doesn’t beg or demand to be liked. It’s content to unfurl in the background, its luxuriant intros and outros pushing song lengths north of six minutes, sprawling out on its own unhurried rhythms. It sounds like being happy in love, with nowhere to go an nothing to do. And if that sounds boring to you, then I submit to you that maybe you don’t know what that emotional place feels like. To me, it sounds like home.

The 20/20 Experience is out now on RCA.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Low’s warm and elegiac Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way.
• Marnie Stern’s bright, busy, pop-addled The Chronicles Of Marnia.
• Phosphorescent’s dusty, ambling free-spirited country-rocker Muchacho.
• William Tyler’s gorgeous, mythic instrumental guitar record Impossible Truth.
• Suede’s glammed-out, crunch-rocking reunion Bloodsports.
• Colleen Green’s sun-dazed, fuzzed-out Sock It To Me.
• KEN Mode’s harsh, merciless precision-hardcore album Entrench.
• Inter Arma’s bleary doom-psych sophomore effort Sky Burial.
• The Ocean Blue’s indie-pop comeback Ultramarine.
• Fol Chen’s enigmatic but relatively accessible The False Alarms.

Comments (79)
  1. Next week’s gonna be tough choosing between “Comedown Machine” and “Afraid of Heights.” Both are really great records to me.

  2. I wonder what Stereogum’s overall impression of “Comedown” has been. I was hoping for a Premature Evaluation, but I guess those are for leaks more than official streams.

    • ^ This was meant to be a reply to Michael O’Neill up top, oops. Don’t wanna go off topic.

      Anyway, JT, yeah! I like that album too.

    • I’m sure we’ll get a premature evaluation of Comedown Machine. Even though they aren’t the same band they were at the beginning they still garner attention with whatever they do.

  3. I hate that Justin Timberlake is pretty much frozen in the “guilty pleasure” category. This is a great album, but to me, I can’t exactly go around saying “I listened to Justin Timberlake today!” without getting weird looks.

    • Really? For most of the people I talk to, he’s been outside the “Guilty Pleasure” zone for a long time.

      • Yeah, at least for me, you mention JT and the reaction is like “::smirk:: c’mon dude”. Whatevs, but it’s like, do people still think he’s in Nsync and making shit like that?

      • Yeah, liking “Cry Me a River” in 2002 was a guilty pleasure. Ever since “FutureSex” I think he has been widely accepted as a legitimate creative force by anybody who follows modern music,, even among most music snobs. Anybody who didn’t see the appeal that album is incapable of enjoying pop music.

    • I can’t buy it yet. I’ve been listening to the Kvelertak stream SG put up pretty much non-stop and to switch over to Mirrors… I’m just in a good place right now and I’m not in a hurry.

    • YOu know who’s actually a guilty pleasure? Kacey Musgraves. That girl made a really good pop-country album. Could have been album of the week, esp. if effin’ Miranda Lambert can do it.

      JT’s album is decent at worst and at best I think. A couple songs are great.

      Opossum thinks that “Muchacho” by Phosphorescent is the best album this week. Effin goooooood.

      Opossum effin’ out. Fuck.

      • I was going to say the same thing about Kacey! Wonderful album that hopefully people don’t sleep on, great lyrics. Funnily enough, she even wrote one of the songs on that Miranda Lambert AOTW.

        I still love the JT album most, though.

    • Don’t fall into the guilty pleasure trap. If you like something, like it. No reason to feel guilty. Feeling guilty talking to somebody about it is something completely different. Something, imo, that says far more about us than the music we listen to. But I never feel guilty about tickling the synapses with some choons.

  4. I’m surprised ‘Gum…thought for sure you’d opt for Palma Violets, this week. They didn’t even get an ‘other albums of note’ mention! Now that’s a guilty pleasure album…

    • Michael_  |   Posted on Mar 19th, 2013 0

      That’s because Tom hates Palma Violets now because (according to Twitter,) one of the dudes ask him and his tall self to take the middle seat on the flight home from SXSW. He chalked it up as NME giving them “entitlement issues,” but it kind of sounded like the pot calling the kettle black if you ask me. I mean, c’mon — Poor, poor babies, the both of them. It must be a tough life having to travel to and from an industry gang bang disguised as a music festival, all expenses paid and watch or play music all day. And then someone wants your seat on the way home. But more so — Professional music writers being petty? Hmm, sounds familiar…

      Also, if you’re going to throw your hard-earned $9.99 toward any sort of mainstream cacophony this week, might as well be Kacey Musgraves’ anti-Swift country pop answer to the DIY spaces’ female Dashboard Confessionalisms.

      Stereogum, I’ve sent three e-mails to admin@stereogum.com requesting that my account me removed from the site. It would be nice if your sit actually did what your “About” section tells us it will do.

      The only reason I came back to comment was to call out some bullshit prettied up as one-sided truth, as usual.

      • Oh shut up you.

        • Smells like collusion to me! Either way, Michael_, why don’t you just not post comments anymore instead of asking to be removed? That smells just like cancelling an account, I’d think, unless I’m missing out on fancy private banter in some champagne prose room.

          • Michael_  |   Posted on Mar 19th, 2013 0

            I want my account removed, out of principal. By just not commenting, that would absolve Stereogum and its rude staff member of any wrong doing despite privately barking at me in multiple instances over the past few months via e-mail, on Tumblr and hawk-eying my tweets (just as I did to Tom above) with her fellow writer to a frustrating point where I can’t even voice an honest and articulated opinion on here, my blog or have a say in clarifying any of their massive assumptions and misunderstandings (especially since they’re just ignored by the recipient altogether until that person sends the next e-mail out with the same tired and misguided complaint) and even enjoy music. If I simply stop commented, that would mean they will have silenced and battered my voice down through intimidation. If I request my account be removed, it means I quit screaming.

          • Whoa. This is starting to feel like some indie version of Tron, but instead feels like The Dude is playing Flynn.

            Either way, ummm, good luck with, ya know, uh, that.

          • Michael_  |   Posted on Mar 19th, 2013 +2

            I wish I never discovered Stereogum.

          • He’s gone! At least he ended on a good note with most people here. Even his nemeses had come around to him. I for one will miss him. A good writer, a sensitive soul, and a friendly guy to those friendly to him.

            His highs were high and his lows were low and he always took us with him.

            An outsider in the middle.

            I wish him well.

            Time to get trashed with Dick Litman

      • Officially done starting…… now!

      • Sounds like you and Stereogum need a timeout.

      • Dude. Shut the fuck up, please. The internet is a big ass place. If you just stop posting you’ll be forgotten in a matter of days as people move on to the rest of the infinite things there is to do, read and discuss online.

  5. So this is fine — I’m not fist-shakingly upset about this pick or anything — but I think that Phosphorescent album is really fantastic. It’s up there with Yo La Tengo as my favorite album of the year so far, and I’ve only been listening to it since the NPR stream went up last week. I expect my enjoyment of it will only continue to grow.

    • Agreed. Phosphorescent put out a really, really great album. Youth Lagoon probably has my favorite album of 2013 thus far, but with each additional spin of Muchacho, it gets closer and closer.

      I know it’s on Spotify now too, if the NPR stream is finished.

  6. Anyone else feel like Mirrors will be THEE SONG played at every wedding this year? And does anyone feel like that will be totally awesome?

  7. I liked suit and tie.

  8. The Colleen Green album is about 900,000 times better than this one, and the Marnie Stern album is about a million times better.

    • Agreed. That Marnie Stern album is fantastic. Phosphorescents new album is much better than this as well. Also, as far R and B goes. Shy Girls’- Under Attack is better than anything on this record. With that said, the end of Strawberrry Bubblegum is fantastic.

  9. Love this album.

  10. well deserved. Shining example of what pop can be. Complex, challenging, experimental. Boundary pushing not only genre wise but length wise and what a pop song can be.

    This is the album to beat. Album of the year currently. And he still has ANOTHER album to go this year.

    Im sure we all had doubts. Its been 7 years. could he live up to his previous work. Does he still have it? He clearly answered that.

    Your move Beiber!

    Ive been listening to this nonstop. Going to be a great listen as the weather turns nice. Imagine sitting on a beach and listening to Blue Ocean Floor. Or sitting on the lawn, sun blazing down, barefeet, listening to Tunnel Vision

  11. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • I was under theimpression that this was a music website. But please, delve further into what the parameters of being a real artist are? Do they involve not being very popular, as your comments indicate? Do theyinvolve holding a grudge against somebody for appearing on a Disney show inthe early ’90s? (I’m old enough to slightly recall watching that show, was it the reworked version of the song that sets you off? Maybe they shouldn’t have messed with the classic?) Do they involve making sweeping assumptions about what other readers of a site may or may not be interested in? If so, you must be a real artist of the telling it like it is. Preach on! Because remeber, if you don’t like it (or you’re too far up your own ass to even give it a honest listen) that means it’s totally without merit.

      • I guess by brjoro’s logic, I should also stop watching movies with Ryan Gosling in it because apparently he’s not a real actor, having also been in Mickey Mouse Club.

    • Yea, if the artist or band isn’t from Williamsburg they shouldn’t be covered on this site!

      • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • I fail to see what about Justin Timberlake makes him “not a real artist”.

  12. Yeah I completely agree with brjoro. Sony/BMG must be paying you guys to hype this mediocre(even for bubblegum standards) “product”. This guy has never had any real creditability. Hell, he wouldn’t even take responsibility for ripping off Janet Jackson’s top. His week on Fallon where he showcased all these generic tracks was also lame. As much as Sony/BMG wants you to hype it, you’ll see after the first couple of weeks this album will fade away.

    Never Forget…

    • damn you’re cool

    • That’s so indie

    • jonian2008 is right. If Timberlake stuck to comedy or even dramatic acting, that would be fine. I have enjoyed everything I’ve seen him in on TV and in movies. His musical endeavors, however, confirm him as a talented entertainer, not an artist. A number of years ago, a bunch of seemingly legit music journalists decided it would be way subversive to endorse Timberlake as the new Michael Jackson. Well, despite the fact that Timberlake has always had way less to do with his songwriting and less to say than Michael Jackson ever did, that ridiculous label somehow stuck and justified (argh) talking about him even on websites and in magazines that scoff at a lot of other pop music.

  13. Only listened to the first half so far, but I initially only planned on listening to the first song and then just couldn’t turn it off. Why can’t more pop music be like this?

  14. I was super excited about this album because I thought Futuresex/Lovesounds was great, but man, I just can’t get into this. It’s just not that interesting to me. The songs are long, but unnecessarily so, whereas on the previous album the songs had multiple parts, ideas, and the length was totally warranted. In this case they just drag on from hooks and melodies that weren’t that particularly interesting to begin with. Mirrors sounds like so many other generic pop songs on the radio that when I first listened to it I honestly thought I had heard it before, but from someone else. That one latin dance inspired song is laughably terrible and absolutely grating after a minute or two.

    I mean, the album is fine, it’s not awful or anything, but it’s just not that great either. I’ve given it a handful of listens and I really don’t think I’ll be coming back. I’m disappointed.

  15. I’ve tried to get out of the habit of saying things unless they are nice, but if JT’s getting 10X the posts that a reflection on Jason Molina is, then I’m just going to have to say, “Fuck you for choosing this steaming pile of shit as AOTW.”

    I can’t really knock anyone for preference, but describing this album as “AOTY”, “complex”, “great”, or “fuck-it-I’ll-be-boring-now album, in a good way” are all ways of saying to the world, “Hey, I’ve given up on sharing any sort of genuine perspective with you; excuse me while I go and enjoy Anderson Cooper’s daytime chat show.”

    I do not hate Justin Timberlake. I’ll go so far as to say that he has a great knack for comic timing that the Adam Sandler’s of the world could learn from. I also think that he does very well with small dramatic roles. He also seems like a pretty decent guy. However, there is no debate in terms of his artistry. He is not an artist by any reasonable definition, and there was more “art” in any five minute segment of the Mickey Mouse Club in which he appeared than during the entire seventy minute span of this trite, facile, flaccid cashgrab.

  16. First keys of third song sound so reminiscent..oh! it’s House Jam, isn’t it!

  17. I can’t shake the feeling that “Blue Ocean Floor” is about Timberlake drowning himself

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