Few albums in the download era have been more zealously presold as Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, but as pointed out in the New York Times recently, Timberlake has moved beyond the realm of pop superstardom into something closer to a brand identity—a suit and tie with a packet of strawberry bubblegum tucked behind the lapel. He aims to bring the suavity, but can’t ever completely sublimate his impish sense of humor, and both poles wrestle for supremacy while his music takes an increasingly supporting role in the equation. Hence his follow-up to the precocious Justified and the self-servingly epic FutureSex/LoveSounds is caught somewhere between a craven and vaguely desultory act of feigned noblesse oblige and Return of the Macky Dolenz.
The 20/20 Experience is all impeccable tailoring with little lining inside. Once again, Timberlake’s hubris is hardly reined in by collaborator Timbaland, who, at this reflexive point in his career, is a perfect match for the singer’s exhausting accrual of achievement as its own artistic goal. But unlike FutureSex/LoveSounds, which was an often thrilling exercise in maximalism, The 20/20 Experience is excess that evaporates without context. Ten tracks, 71 minutes, and absolutely no evidence that a single musical idea was at any point in the creative process vetoed. For someone who looks better than anyone in show business wearing lustrous, flagpole-thin threads like an amatory stalk of corn, Timberlake’s jams amble aimlessly like they’re in desperate need of elastic-band waistlines. That the album remains listenable is a testament to Timberlake’s undeniable, Ben Vereen-like beaver-eagerness. Even when he’s caught rambling through an album clearly crafted out of obligation, he still comes off as a really sexy gnat.
Chief among the album’s problems is that Timbaland is by now bicep-deep in his Goldberg Variations operating system. Instead of bringing beats that will stand on their own in single edit form, he insists on taking each of his half-cocked or rehashed ideas and submitting them to a series of baroque transformations, turning each B+ potential single into a C- epic. (The self-contained “Suit & Tie,” with its breezy xylophone arpeggios, ping-ponging snare snaps, and super-cute Jay-Z verse, is just about the only exception, and in retrospect it’s not hard to see why the powers that be selected it as the lead single.) What goes around in The 20/20 Experience rarely comes around, and what’s even more embarrassing is how many of the tracks sound better in their outros, when Timbaland pushes past Timberlake’s barbershop seductions and starts cutting up syllables julienne-style. “Pusher Love Girl” starts the album off with what sounds like a chorus of Al Green Muppets until, many smooth minutes later, Timbaland pixelates those vanilla curls; “Tunnel Vision” is a Tweety twerky jaunt back into the Middle Eastern overtones that so obsessed Timbaland a decade ago until layers of beatboxing start to clog the works up like plaque inside a vein; “Don’t Hold the Wall” drops the moody tablas and darkly rich drama for a double-time ghetto-blaster breakbeat; “Strawberry Bubblegum” graduates from Casio demo rhythms into a Lowrey organ Latin shuffle setting as JT falls back on sucrose-saturated MJ self-harmonizing; and the ambient closer “Blue Ocean Floor” transforms from a song that’s barely breathing into a song that’s fully drowned under the influence of a different ocean: Frank.
Once in a while the Tims settle on an idea good enough to sustain interest for the full nine yards/eight minutes: “Spaceship Coupe” overlays a Princely electric guitar solo atop a fully digitized slow screw that sounds descended from the Delfonics’ alien ancestors (and, more immediately, descended from Ciara’s “Promise”), and “Let the Groove Get In” is so much elegant syncopation. But more often than not, The 20/20 Experience‘s either chameleonic or unfocused tracks speak poorly of an icon now constantly on the lookout for his next great cross-promotional opportunity.