Nearly seven years have passed since Justin Timberlake released his last album, 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds: an eternity in pop. You’ve got to give the guy credit for the nonchalance with which he stepped off his pedestal — at the height of his career, no less — to further develop his brand as an actor, fashion designer, restauranteur, host of Walmart shareholder’s meetings, and, most famously and incredulously, a golfer. It was a controversial decision, but ultimately, also a smart one. The pop economy is every bit as fleeting and fickle as Wall Street, and a diversified portfolio is often the only viable line of defense against the inevitable slouch towards indistinctness that the vast majority of artists experience as their prime years wane (Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy/Sean Combs, of course, being the textbook example).
Timberlake spent a considerable chunk of his youth, and virtually all of his adolescence, learning these harsh realities firsthand — first as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and again as the reluctant frontman of ‘N Sync, one of the most painstakingly-crafted boy bands in history. The TRL hosts and the merchandisers did their best to give everyone a fair shot, but the Darwinian laws governing boy-band world could not be undone. From the very start, it was dance or die, belt or be bested. And Timberlake was the fittest of them all: his croon was the softest, his dance moves the sharpest. “Gone,” ‘N Sync’s final single, was not so much a collective farewell as it was a preview of what was to come — Timberlake retaining the spotlight, while his bandmates turned to careers with NASA, on Nickelodeon, or on Broadway. And he’s been too big to fail ever since then, barring, of course, his accessory role in the horrible, horrible “wardrobe malfunction” that seared America’s eyeballs for years. He’s the new Jackson, so to speak, a master entertainer-cum-entrepreneur who brought sexy back.
With The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake — along with his producer and partner in crime, Timbaland — return rested, refreshed, and equipped with a luxe aesthetic, half Nordstrom and half Neiman Marcus. “This is truffle season,” a lethargic and downright lazy Jay-Z flatly recites in the sweeping, slinky lead single, “Suit & Tie.” “Tom ford tuxedos for no reason.” It’s a poppier, self-conscious rehashing of the egoistic excess of Watch the Throne, fantastic enough to wow the average listener without being offensive; a cop-out, in other words (which might help to offer some explanation as to why Kanye railed against the song in an extensive, slightly delusional rant in London last month). Yes, “Suit & Tie” is a pretty, polished bit of R&B, with some nice added harp glissandos and a fun, albeit out-of-place, chopped-and-screwed intro. I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up on the soundtrack for the new Great Gatsby adaptation (which Jay-Z is producing).
This superficiality manifests itself most noticeably with the exorbitant, extended arrangements of the album’s 10 tracks. “If Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can have 10 minute long songs, why can’t I?” Timberlake recently asked NME (for the record, none of the songs actually surpass that mark). He’s made long-form songs work in the past — two of his strongest singles, “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and “Lovestoned,” used their extensive playtimes (7:29 and 7:24, respectively) to allow their narratives to swell and secede slowly, their dynamic instrumental shifts mirrored by Timberlake’s nimble vocals. But on 20/20, the Timberlake/Timbaland team seems content to set up a basic (and more often than not, bland) hook, repeat it ad infinitum, and tack on some superfluous bits until the desired, bloated end product comes into being. “Pusher Love Girl,” the album’s funky opener, could easily end at the 4:42 mark; instead, Timberlake would rather spend the remaining three and a half minutes dragging us through a cheeseball rap coda, set to the same string flourishes as the opening. Is this the result of an impromptu jam session, a self-deprecating joke about the song’s tired “love-as-drug” metaphors, or just a bit of water-treading? Even after my 15th listen, I couldn’t say, but I’m tempted to go with that last option. Timberlake’s so focused with creating his very own “Kashmir,” all dancey detours and Steve Wonder vamps, that he misses a key step: make the chorus catchy. This faulty reasoning is to blame for the close-but-not-quite frustrations of the “Wanna Be Starting Something” cousin, “Let the Groove Get In,” and of “Don’t Hold the Wall,” a Middle Eastern-tinged bit of jungle fever that never gets all four paws on the floor.
The other factor keeping Timberlake from realizing his sophisticated artistic vision is his lyricism. By now, we’ve learned to take the sauciness of the Timberlake/Timbaland team alongside the subtle — to roll our eyes at the fast-food euphemisms of their 2009 collab, “Carry Out,” only to get floored by the sucker-punch sincerity of “Cry Me a River.” Unfortunately, 20/20 is an album swathed in sauciness, constantly stretching out weak metaphors to fit the ambitious playtimes. There’s your-love-is-like-drugs (“Pusher Love Girl,”), your-love-is-like-candy (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), and your-love-is-like-an-alien (“Spaceship Coupe,” a leading candidate for the next SNL digital short, complete with porno moans and faux-Parliament guitars).
He gets it right on “Tunnel Vision,” a futuristic, clattering song about obsessive love that cleverly, catchily works in the album’s optometry, without beating us over the head with it. Also stellar is “Mirrors,” an otherwise humdrum, rock-tinged ballad about finding your “other half:” midway through, JT drops the whole “mirrors” bit and starts to chant, in what is perhaps the album’s catchiest refrain: “You are/ You are/ The love of my life.” He tears down his metaphorical backdrop, exposes the song for what it is — a little ditty for Ms. Biel — and tenderly walks it to its conclusion, hand-in-hand, like any good husband. When he forgoes the frou-frou facades and the talk of “hydroponic candy jelly beans,” Timberlake can whip out some great love songs: at 4:48, the Sam Cooke throwback, “That Girl,” is the album’s shortest song, but also its strongest, buttressed by lively funk guitar, doo-wop harmonies, and brass arrangements.
The album’s closer, “Blue Ocean Floor,” is Timberlake’s stab at Channel Orange-style intimacy. Over a clipping, skittering loop that sounds remarkably similar to the track that birthed it — Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates” — Timberlake’s feathery falsetto stirs, drifts, and settles back on top of itself like the prettiest ocean sediment you’ve ever heard, a quiet hypnosis entirely dissimilar to the orchestral bombast that kicked off the album. This is his opportunity to find some common ground with Frank Ocean and Miguel, to channel their iPhone-era disillusionment and reflect, to get at those bare-bones essentials outlined earlier. It’s a good thing that Timberland plans to release another set of tunes later this year. “Blue Ocean Floor” offers a hopeful glimpse into what this project could have been (or might ultimately be): pop in perfect, HD clarity. As Mr. Ocean and more recently Autre Ne Veut, have proved, sometimes the best way to engage the anxieties of our tormented, “inbox-zero” generation is not through excess, overwrought allegory, or overexpression, but with honesty, modesty, attention to detail, and free association. A different kind of diversified portfolio. Or, to go along with Timberlake’s optometric motifs, a pair of ugly-but-working bifocals rather than glossy Chanel shades.