We can deny it all we want, but at some point - regardless of how it inflicted on our young lives or how much we attempted to block it out - our early years were filled with high influxes of the likes of Justin Timberlake. Back in a time when boy-bands were seen more like musical gladiators vying to the death for supremacy, and MTV broadcasted this stream of music on a constant basis (haha, MTV playing music, yeh that's a good one), N Sync were less a means of outputting music and records, and more this trivial constant showdown against the rest who dare attempt stand in their way for dominance in the boy-band market. Timberlake was always going to be the one who came out with a promising career beyond the band - and that's not because he stood as the unofficial front-man and [officially] the one who had the more important lines in songs - thus while the trivial contest for success in boy-bands died down at the turn of the 21st century, he went on to make a successful career as not only a solo artist, but an artist who showed his more maturer and adult-lenient tendencies, even if such tendencies still lingered on the same-old context of love, relationships and the necessary tragedies that might befall it. In the seven years since FutureSex/LoveSounds was released, Timberlake has dabbled himself in acting and entrepreneurial feats alike. But none of it, no matter how daring, would ever match the music of which most people would identify with the Tennessee singer-songwriter. So while some might see it as a stiflingly odd turn of events to find him returning to music after such a long spell, with The 20/20 Experience, long-time fans (no doubt the ones who in some age had plastered posters of Mr. Timberlake all over their bedroom walls) will be thrilled by a new album. And for a ten-track seventy minute bonanza, the suspicion that this will be grand, ambitious and full of pop flavour is an almost certain assumption likewise.
But as a man who isn't blissfully succumbed to this allure of personality and supposed flavour, the truth of the matter - and the matter plaguing most (if not all) of mainstream pop - is the album's depth, or rather lack of it. The opening track Pusher Love Girl may attempt to deceive us with its sweeping cinematic scale of violins. And even when it breaks down and opens itself out to a more subtle and RnB-focused beat and rhythm, there's still a lingering whiff of the predictable and the one-dimensional about Timberlake's focus on beats and rhythm. By the half-way point, I'm curious - creeping towards worried - as to what the remaining four minutes will offer, and while I'm again intrigued by the violin inclusion and how it seems to settle and calm the music down, I'm left feeling rather deflated at his (and indeed producer Timbaland's) methodology in remixing the layers of the music into something more groove-orientated in an attempt to add further depth. But even with the slightly more synthetic approach, it doesn't excuse Timberlake's one-dimensional and cringe-worthy lyricism. Again, the metaphor of love being a drug only leaves me cringing in disgust: 'I'm hooked upon you, it won't go away/And I can't wait until I get home and get you in my veins' which then leads us even more cringe-inducing to: 'Can't you fix me up, I'm your number one theme/My little pill and just creep into my bloodstream'. Not a good start, by any standards.
I don't discredit Timberlake's passion and vocal intensity here, and said elements appear quite voluntarily on follower, and lead single, Suit & Tie. The song has much more of a polished and refined edge to it than previous, but as far as depth and structure, that's not really saying much. The initial slow crawl of beats work well to play into the hands of Timberlake's main focused flutter of vocals thereafter and while the emphasis on beats is clear, there's plenty of organic instrumentation to give the track some much-needed charisma and colour to it. I just wish Jay-Z's follow-on rap was a bit more synchronous and as tonal as the music and vocals that preceded it. It ultimately feels out of place and rather generalized, as if it could fit any pop song quite easily. Don't Hold The Wall perhaps holds more promise because the nature of the track's nightly ambiance and suburban clatter of percussion and harmony gives his vocals a suitable nesting place. Vocals aside, the music feels rather understanding of itself - not necessarily attempting anything grand-scale or overly pompous or snide. The focus on the groove of percussion I think is what helps the music progress, but I just wish that - once more - Timberlake's decision to make this a seven-minute listen would mean that the music developed more, and sadly the closing two-and-a-half minute feel more like an over-stretched remix than a justifiable reason for the music to be forced into this club-themed swing of synth-based disco deliverance.
One of the album's, I suppose, beneficial positives here is its divergence, and focus, on a multitude of different genres including blues, jazz, classic RnB and even funk in places. Strawberry Bubblegum certainly feels like one of Timberlake's more experimental tracks musically - experimental in the sense that it attempts this pop execution using, in this case, the laced grooves of RnB and funk to try and explore its subject matter. If only the subject matter was a lot less romantic and one-dimensional in its deliverance, this track might have been onto something. But in the end, I feel the music is left with second-fiddle against Timberlake's lyricism: 'Don't ever change your flavour because I love the taste/And if you ask me where I want to go I'll say all the way'. It's a shame, because I feel this sound (if it were given the proper treatment and respect it so rightfully deserves) this could have offered us with a more interesting side to Timberlake's music. But in the end, all it does is fall victim to sexualized - rather pornographically - images of this tired rehash of the most intimately made-out metaphor for love and expressing such love. It's a cliche (one of if not the biggest cliche) that's been done so many a time in contemporary pop, and Timberlake's rather slow, seeping attempts are not going to divert my view away from viewing this as nothing short of cringe-worthy. But even when the metaphors aren't as brimming and purposefully-romanticizing, Spaceship Coupe shows that lyrics can often ruin what momentum and intriguing structure of sound the track generates. Despite Timberlake's emphasis on funk and a slow beat of rhythm and blues - squirming beats, icy sprinkles of piano and rowdy guitar riffs all combining into quite an emphatic and, dare I say it, moving melody - it's his lyrics about driving to a galaxy, being 'only room for two' and 'making love on the moon' that drain what character Timberlake attempts to swirl into the mix. In the end, the supposed influence from pop artists incorporating such genres as funk and RnB comes off more just a forced simulacra without source other than sickly lyrics, rather than an actual individual effort.
I don't want to make out that the lyrics are the primary reason for why I can't enjoy this record - and it would be so easy to make it equally the scapegoat for Timberlake's flaw(s) here - because even if we take the vocals out (despite the man's rather smooth falsetto being one of the best in the business, I'd sacrifice it that if it meant removal of the lyrics), when looking at the music at its most critical and structural base, as stated, there's little evidence to suggest that the rather grand seven-plus stretches are justified. In most cases, if it's not simply a repeated loop of the same beat or expelling of groove, the 'remixed' fashion of the music does little to develop what is already a rather sturdy but overly safe-sounding mix. More length ≠ more quality, much in the same way more layers ≠ more quality too. I guess where Timberlake attempts, and succeeds, in balancing decision on length over the reasons for such a length is on the track Let The Groove Get In. As the title suggests, there's an almighty salvo - and a rather tropical, carnival-like delivery as a result - of rhythm and intricacy with how the extroversion of percussion and instrumentation plays to Timberlake's confidence and immediate passion. Everything here feels rather in-place and perfected to suit, and the energy omitted comes off pleasantly across to the listener. Even when the track delves into predictably safe production measures, in harmonizing vocals and music, there's litttle lost in the overall passion of the piece. And in regards to the track's length, the way the music focuses on certain instruments - whether that be the gentle offer of piano, or the click of percussion, or even the string pieces - it doesn't necessarily feel like something that's been tagged-on or left to hopefully evolve on its own. It's reasonably expanded upon, it seems, by Timberlake himself and the slightly stripped-back deliverance works.
The vibe I get from the opening warm sweep of horns and synths on Mirrors is that we're approaching - or returning - to more a dance-pop suitability for Timberlake's vocals. I'm disappointed then that the song thereafter comes off in the same-old middle-of-the-road safety in beats and meshed production. I guess the main positive here is that Timberlake's vocals are given top priority, rightfully so, even if the themes and accompanying lyrics should have perhaps been left to the backdrop where the cluttered noise of the track's over-layered foundry is based. 'I don't want to lose you now...It's like your my mirror now/Looking and staring back at me/I couldn't get any bigger, with anyone else beside of me.' So even before the half-way mark, and the track devolves into this baffling dribbling of vocals and stripped-back focus on percussion, I'm unfortunately finding myself put off by how forced the music is aligned and pushed together. But I can at least leave this album knowing that I've found myself enjoying - enjoy as in relishing in a particular track's sound and atmospheric/emotive stance - more than one musical occasion. The coastal, late-evening melancholy of closer Blue Ocean Floor has for the most part a backward-playing piano running the course of its duration, and it's this rather dreamy, surreal, almost mopey flutter of texture that gives Timberlake's vocals a sense of depth and distance to them. As we hear some splash of waves and what sounds like a tape cassette being inserted/rejected, the deep and weightless quality to the looping [reversed] piano is what pulls me in, as if caught in this same endless tide of blue ocean. And I'm caught by it so much, that the seven-minute length is - for one of the only times - a just and well-worked decision. Even more-so, I feel a creeping need to hear more of it, as if demanding a longer cut.
Sadly, this is only one of the moments where Justin Timberlake's divergence from mainstream generalization of sound, and into more interesting sub-fields of pop - both past and present - actually execute in a way that demonstrates both development and an understanding into why he's chosen such variance. For the most part - taking away these factors, and the fact that JT still manages to create some hypnotically catchy lyrical liners - The 20/20 Experience is a thin, single-axis of deceit attempting to make itself out as many things that are in fact just different flavours of the same product. And vocally, while the man's maturity as a singer comes up many a time, there's little to suggest he's moved away personally from the teen-orientated narrative for love and romance; lyrics ranging from the demeaning to the downright embarrassing. Ultimately, what presents itself as a grand apostle of polished pop music - production and layered engineering certainly feeling the most accomplishing in most parts - is nothing short than a meager attempt to get tongues waggling and showcase Timberlake as having the same build of character as he has done years previous. But in result, though his ambition and attitude have grown - with little hesitance and means to withdraw behind the sounds - the sacrifice of development and divergence from what is still a safe context for contemporary pop - love, romance, emotion, the need for one another - clearly shows for the ex-N Sync member. Though the production and means for divulging the man's persona does seem cleanly polished, it's still sacrificially devoid of expansion, thus giving an even saddening linger and assumption that both Timberlake and Timbaland alike aren't interested in the musical aesthetic of change. Rather, what lights up their eyes, is just how much it can generate for them on a personal level and - as is the case with the industry - a financial one too.