Review: Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience’

Rating: 4.9/5
Release: Out now

“The 20/20 Experience” shouldn’t be a good album. In a perfect world, it would be a bad, no-good, terrible album and we could all go home and get some rest and have an early night. That’d be nice, eh?

What should have happened is that Justin Timberlake should have released a pop album with two good songs and a whole lot of filler. That’s what should have happened. Perhaps a good video. Perhaps a sort of half-thought-out Rolling Stone cover shot by David LaChappelle and an appearance (but no win) at the Grammys. Then he’d go back into obscurity / mass amounts of fame as an actor, like he has done the last six years or so since releasing the similarly brilliant (we’ll get to that later) FutureSex/LoveSounds album.

Full disclosure: Your correspondent here thinks Justin Timberlake is batfuckingly talented. If you’d have told me in high school that the Brillo-pad haired one from NSync would be this famous a decade later, I would have spat out my Surge soda and GoGurt and laughed at you. The guy can sing and act. There aren’t a lot of people like that in the entertainment industry, amigo. For what he does, he’s kind of a phenomenon in that aspect. So while it still might be pretty gauche to say “Hi I’m a Justin Timberlake fan” in 2013, there’s no denying he’s good at what he does. He may be a nightmare in real life. Perhaps he skins puppies. But the guy can sing.

Instead of a warmed-over third album released six years after the last, what Timberlake offers here is a well rounded natural progression of a third album that doesn’t try to retread the disco-white-boy-fonk of his first album or the cold-‘Computer-Blue’-era-Prince-white-boy-fonk of his second. The 20/20 Experience sounds like what a mature pop album should sound like in 2013.

And mature it is. You won’t find a 3-minute radio hit on here (the shortest song on the album, single-apparent “That Girl”, is 4:49). Half the songs on this pop album clock in at over 7 minutes. Surprisingly, this isn’t Justin Timberlake pulling a prog-rock album. He’s letting shit build.

Again – it’s weird thinking “oh, this is a Justin Timberlake album” because he’s a pop singer and god-dammit I grew up listening to punk music and I’m not supposed to be singing along to an R&B song. What would my Dischord record albums think of me? If my Drag City Records knew I was listening to “Let The Groove Get In” on the subway they’d surely kick my ass. Which is why The 20/20 Experience works. It’s completely fucking infectious.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. There’s a song called “Spaceship Coupe”, for christ’s sake. But it’s fucking catchy. And it’s catchier still because he plays it straight. There’s even a particularly righteous guitar solo halfway through and sampled female groaning thrown in there. The thing is – he plays “Spaceship Coupe” AS IF IT WASN’T A SONG ABOUT HAVING SEX IN A SPACESHIP. That shit even gets a romantic breakdown at the end. It shouldn’t work. But he sells it because he doesn’t give a fuck and not giving a fuck is tantamount to having charm which is what this whole album cruises on. He tries on so many different flourishes here, yet keeps them centered around a classic near-MoTown R&B backdrop, and it all works because he’s doing it with style. It’s a stylish album; style (and catchy music, obviously) is what holds this whole album together.

No – really. The 20/20 Experience is one of the best albums of the year, hands down. 90% of that reason is that he could have very easily coasted but instead turned in a 1999-era Prince album of jams. It’s a major label album released by a major pop star who also acts… all of those things should count against him in the Grand Scheme Of Being A Dick About Music but dude manages to overwin cynicism by releasing a nuanced and complex album that wouldn’t sound out of place in a top-shelf nightclub or a 14 year old girl’s headphones. Or in the white earbuds of a jaded Brooklynite on the subway. It works. The only gripe I have with The 20/20 Experience is that he could still go further, that he could still explore. It’d be fascinating to hear what he could do with, say, Flying Lotus, or collaborating on some minimalist out-there weird shit, and it would be interesting to see if he could pull of some Thom-Yorke-esque IDM jawns as well as this impeccably tailored pop he’s so good at: while 20/20 is clearly stadium pop that works well in the bedroom, it’d be interesting to see if he could do bedroom music that works well in a stadium.

There will undoubtably be people who don’t like this but I can assure you that the majority-stake of their dislike of The 20/20 Experience will be from their abhorrence of the words “pop music” (or “Justin Timberlake”). Really. Listen to this. It’s quite fucking good.