It’s interesting that the designation of 20/20 vision is generally hailed as the epitome of visual acuity, when in fact higher vision strengths do exist. At best, 20/20 is the healthy human average, which in that regard makes it an apt designation for the long awaited return album by Justin Timberlake.
Okay, so that was something of a cheap shot, and it’s not really warranted or apt. After all, the title of Timberlake’s latest, The 20/20 Experience, is a clear and on the record reference to the old saying about hindsight, something for which Justin certainly doesn’t lack. In the 7 years since FutureSex/LoveSounds (Timberlake’s first collaboration with returning producer Timbaland), Justin’s never really been out of the public eye thanks to an especially strong acting career and undeniable clout as a born entertainer. Still, a new album was always what the pop-loving masses were clamoring for, and if Timberlake would have the titular 20/20 connotation refer to anything, it’d be his long-honed sense of perspective as an artist in approaching said task.
To that end, this actually does seem like a more mature work for Justin, but not in the way you might think. Where FS/LS frequently came off as pretentious, The 20/20 Experience has the confidence to play to Timberlake’s strengths and seeks only to entertain, or at least facilitate entertainment. The whole record is structured like a dance album, with an average song length of 7 to 8 minutes ensuring plenty of time spent out on the dance floor.
Speaking of structure, that’s another aspect where the hindsight theme holds sway. In keeping with the idea of looking back and reappraising the past, many of the songs here feature transitions that work to re-contextualize everything that came before them. This approach is especially effective on tracks like “Don’t Hold the Wall,” a rhythmic sampling of world-music chants and precussion; and “Mirrors,” the album’s most “single-y” track (fittingly), where the swooping strings and beat-box claps give way to a more minimalist backing chant that works surprisingly well at evoking the song’s romantic themes. Easily the most fun track on the album, “Pusher Love Girl” likewise hinges on a noticeable shift, here in the form of a decidedly harder edge to its lilting electric guitar sample to accompany the lyrics’ increasing urgency. On paper, a song equating romantic longing to hard drug addiction would be a tough call, but it’s a testament to Timberlake’s charm and humor (see any of his SNL digital shorts) that he can make the song feel like both goofy fun and just over-the-top enough for nobody to take too seriously.
Unfortunately, the instances where this revision approach doesn’t succeed are also the markers for the album’s lowest points. The first single, “Suit & Tie,” is just barely tolerable; again, Timberlake’s good humor somewhat salvages what is basically a “Rock Your Body” retread. But then comes Jay-Z’s guest track, a jarringly out of place and simply unfun bout of braggadocio that not even Justin can bounce back from. This song, however, at least has some merit in its first half, as opposed to “Strawberry Bubblegum,” which fails to engage through either of its iterations. Never mind the fact that the titular lyrical metaphor in no way gels with the dim and sleepy beat laid under it; when the track finally decides to switch things up, it opts for a inanely repetitive muzak beat to complement an equally insipid lyrical refrain: “I’ll be your blueberry lolly-pop / and-I’ll-love-you-til-I-make-you-pop.” Ugh.
Despite downers such as these (add “Spaceship Coupe” to the duds bin: a track so dull, I almost forgot to mention it), the record does manage to break well north of even. Much like the songs listed above, The 20/20 Experience undergoes a reappraisal of itself in its second half, where several more straightforward yet equally rewarding tunes lay in wait. “Tunnel Vision” admittedly relies more on its beat than anything Justin brings to the table, but Timbaland’s production values more than make up for it, turning in a rock solid straight-up dance track. Equally impressive is the moody closer, “Blue Ocean Floor,” where jangling pianos, popping cassette decks and warped rewinds coalesce with Timberlake’s wistful proclamations of longing into a singularly affecting piece.
Ultimately, The 20/20 Experience is a highly serviceable pop record that stands as further proof of Justin Timberlake’s prowess as an entertainer and performer. No two songs drive this point home better than the one-two punch of “That Girl” and “Let the Groove Get In.” This pairing may just be the album’s strongest peak, in that both tracks seek (and succeed) to capture the spirit of a live performance. “That Girl” does so literally, opening with a spoken introduction before swinging into a classic-style, us-against-the-world love ballad, complete with liberal flourishes of brass horns. But that’s just things getting warmed up: the horns really cut loose on the Latin-infused “Let the Groove Get In.” If I called “Pusher Love Girl” the most fun track on The 20/20 Experience, “Let the Groove Get In” is easily the most alive, a fantastic jam that proves to be the beating heart of the whole album. The only thing more exciting now is the prospect of Timberlake performing it live.