A lot’s changed in the past seven years. Back then, we all did our fair share of complaining, because George W. Bush occupied the White House. Oprah still had a show, as did those wacky Soprano and Bluth families. Nobody knew who Don Draper was, and nobody cared who Kate Middleton was. The year was 2006, and the millennium was still sort of a fresh, new concept. It was also the last time we had a new album from Justin Timberlake.
As much as pop culture has changed since then, the landscape of pop music has changed, also. After the explosive release of FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake unexpectedly went into premature retirement. While JT was busy filming romantic comedies, dating, breaking up with, and then marrying a movie star, and honing his sketch comedy skills, a baby-faced Canadian teenager swiftly took his place as the most famous Justin in the world. Expectations for a follow-up were high, even before Timberlake’s cryptic “comeback” announcement was made earlier this year. Now that we finally have The 20/20 Experience in our hands, we understand what took so long; fittingly, Justin Timberlake’s third album isn’t quite an album, but a full experience.
When “Suit & Tie” dropped back in January, reactions were mixed, and The 20/20 Experience seems to be following, ahem, suit. If it hasn’t already, “Suit & Tie” will definitely grow on you. But was the slick, retro-themed single really blowing anyone away? Not quite. Luckily, “Pusher Love Girl” makes up for this disappointment right out of the gate. The 20/20 album opener is everything that JT’s comeback single should have been; bold, finger-snapping, clever, and decidedly fresh. Best of all, the lengthy track– eight minutes, three seconds, to be exact– doesn’t even hit its peak until well into its final seconds.
After this auspicious introduction, The 20/20 Experience takes some undoubtedly curious turns. For better or worse, it’s not the easy, breezy party album that its predecessor was (although Timbaland is almost as good as he was before). “Let the Groove In” is a shimmering, exotic dance party, obviously inspired by Off The Wall era Michael Jackson. But “Strawberry Bubblegum” is just okay, that is, until the not-so-subtle gum metaphor is exhausted to the point of no return (“I’ll love ya til I make ya pop!”). “Spaceship Coupe” is a futuristic piece of erotic soul that could almost be mistaken for a Lonely Island gag, if Timberlake didn’t manage to pull it off so well. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that Andy Samberg won’t be making an appearance in the video, wearing a strategically designed spacesuit, naturally.
Many have lamented the album’s lack of three-minute mega hits, a la` “SexyBack,” “Rock Your Body,” and “Cry Me A River.” The shiny newlywed romance ballad “Mirrors” tries, but doesn’t quite cut it, as far as singles go. But while it’s true that many of the tracks on 20/20 are long and generally slow, it’s obvious that JT doesn’t care too much about pleasing the radio masses. Sharply dressed with his retro grooves and glittery falsetto in tow, he manages to carry the album almost entirely on his charm, which for now, at least, is working.
Despite the obvious flaws in The 20/20 Experience, it’s still an experience worth having. In time, perhaps, we’ll all grow into it (you know what they say about hindsight). But for now, Justin Timberlake can still breathe easy as the reigning King of Pop. Though several have come close, no male singer has yet to take a real swipe his crown. Because even when Justin Timberlake is far from perfect, he’s always worth the wait.
3.5 / 5 bars