jt-2020-reviewJustin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
Day & A Dream Rating: 4.0
2013; RCA/Sony Music
Buy: iTunes | Amazon | Target Exclusive Deluxe

When you take an extended break from the music game – not counting limited features and contributions to a sketch comedy show’s parody band – and when you happen to drop a certified classic album just before going on that hiatus, it’s understood expectations will be high upon your return. Justin Timberlake’s last long-player, 2006’s FutureSex LoveSounds, is still beloved by many music lovers today. So it makes perfect sense that Timberlake would reunite with super-producer Timbaland – the man responsible for much of FS/LS‘s sound – for his return to music, The 20/20 Experience. But with the passing of time comes, as well, a maturity in sound and in the material itself.

Perhaps, to best understand 20/20one must accept that Justin Timberlake now is very different from Justin Timberlake then. In the FS/LS era, Timberlake was linked to actress Cameron Diaz but was still quite the playboy. He was having fun, as reflected in the loud, pulse-of-the-club-esque sound present in tracks as “SexyBack” and “My Love”; but was also still somewhat scorned and jaded (see, “What Goes Around… Comes Around”/”Losing My Way”). Now, Timberlake is married to Jessica Biel. His acting career is no longer fledgling but, if not respected, then certainly established. His priorities have changed. To use a certain phrase, Justin Timberlake is a grown-ass man these days; and, consequently, The 20/20 Experience can be seen as grown folks’ music.

Though Timbaland (aided by additional producers Rob Knox and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon) has carried over some of his signature pulsating beats into The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake relies more upon a sort-of big band sound in many of the album’s ten songs. Thus, lead single “Suit & Tie,” with piano keys tinkling in the background, loud trumpets, and steady drum taps, seems almost Frank Sinatra-esque (sans, of course, the chopped and screwed influenced beat drops and Jay-Z guest verse).  “That Girl,” clearly influenced by classic soul music right down to its radio/dance-nightclub-esque introduction of “JT and Tennessee Kids,” uses an instrumentation that remains hushed as Timberlake croons along it, its horns announcing themselves only in the breaks between verses. And “Let the Groove In” is all but built for a conga line or a tango for two, irresistible and infectious in its execution.

Just because 20/20 has a more mature sound, doesn’t mean it lacks fun, however. Intro track “Pusher Love Girl,” a slow jam lullaby propelled forward by guitars and horns, allows Timberlake’s clever wordplay to turn the object of his affection into his dealer and his feelings for her as a metaphorical addiction (“People call me a user, ’cause I want you…”). “Spaceship Coupe,” Timberlake’s attempt to seduce a woman as he takes her for a metaphorical ride in the sky – peppered here and there with galaxy/stars analogies – is likely to be the “last song” at many a club and house party this spring and summer. That FutureSex/LoveSounds feel sneaks its way onto “Mirrors,” with its string-driven melody and emotionally charged lyrics, and “Don’t Hold the Wall.” The latter features Timbo growling out the titular words on the song’s hook and Justin harmonizing as best he can; the drums in the track’s background – especially when they’re briefly accompanied by hand claps at the 3:05 mark – will damn near demand an island wine (if not an island twerk) of its female listeners. And “Tunnel Vision” sounds classic… albeit missing the presence of the ghost of Aaliyah that clearly occupies the track.

Surprisingly, it’s the over-emphasis on orchestral instrumentation that ends up hampering 20/20 in the long run as much as it helps it. The beat changes on most of the songs, while enjoyable to listen to, grow repetitive and even a little exhausting when they show up back-to-back… and then back-to-back again. And “Blue Ocean Floor,” sweeping symphony that it is, doesn’t seem like a fitting enough close to 20/20 as it is. Either of the bonus tracks packaged on the album’s Target exclusive edition – the seductive “Dress On” slightly moreso than “Wanna Be Startin’ Something’s” great-grandson the club-ready potential single “Body Count” – would have been more fitting conclusions.

The 20/20 Experience is not FutureSex/LoveSounds. It doesn’t try to be, nor does it need to be FutureSex; and taken as its own, it’s a great listen and a solid return for Justin Timberlake, one that leaves listeners anxiously anticipating the impending “volume two” of Timberlake’s Experience.