THE 20/20 EXPERIENCE
Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, et. al
I’ve read few pieces criticizing The 20/20 Experience. Negative reviews from NME and The Guardian summarize its worst aspects – namely, the songs are all about three minutes too long, and the lyrics are poor throughout. But there’s still so much to say about The 20/20 Experience that it justifies a four-month late reflection.
The most interesting thing about 20/20 is the way it revises JT’s supposed strengths. It poses him as a playboy with an endless falsetto and a secret, vulnerable well of heart. His vocals have transformed, R. Kelly impressions rather than his classic N*SYNC formula. And the notable arrangements are stuttery Timbaland stoner jams (“Don’t Hold The Wall,” “Tunnel Vision”) and Luther Vandross throwbacks (“Suit & Tie,” “Pusher Love Girl.”)
But this belies the true story; before JT and 20/20, Justin sought to bridge the difference between love songs and sex jams on FutureSex/LoveSounds. The most marked difference between the two albums is the positioning of Justin as a romantic lead. On 20/20, he’s the star; he objectifies the woman, positioning himself as the one who brings pleasure to “you.” But on FutureSex, he’s obsessing over the girl; even when he’s bringing “SexyBack,” he does it in shackles, not in a suit and tie. The most he used to muster was humming the opening of his old rivals’ “I Want It That Way” in an outro; now, the girl is a reflection of his own worth rather than his idol. His persona, lyrical strengths, and voice all fit his old style better; he’s far more interesting as a sub than a dom, and his voice doesn’t compete with the crooners who he imitates on 20/20.
Conversely, the arrangements on FutureSex empowered Justin as a songwriter. JT knows a lot about arranging for a capella. Every song I remember from FutureSex features several layers of Justin beatboxing, singing along to the instrumental track, or, best of all, the “gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp, and sigh” of “Sexy Ladies” and “LoveStoned.” But, instead, Timbaland owns most of the arrangements on 20/20, the focus moved to Justin’s lead falsetto and Timbaland’s instrumentals.
Neither revision is ubiquitous. “Pusher Love Girl” and “That Girl” both strip JT of his power. The psychedelic repetition on the breakdowns (“J-j-j-j-junkie for your love” and “You are, you are, the love, of my life”) are all a stoner haze away from Justin’s a capella, even if the down-pitched vocal effect is a bit more Timbaland. In fact, on “Mirrors,” the breakdown bares sincerity.
There are some great moments. The Timbaland spoken word breakdown on “Don’t Hold The Wall” is a fascinating groove; the bossa-nova coda to “Strawberry Bubblegum,” is fun even through lyrical insipidness. One more: “Blue Ocean Floor” is the strongest lyrical work on the album. The imagery of parsing a lover’s voice through endless static is sold sincerely. Its arrangement, half “Revolution 9” and half Frank Ocean, recalls the “What Goes Around/Comes Back Around” interlude and makes for a sweet and compelling ending.
Yet 20/20 never coheres to anything singular. Multiple songs fall short; “Spaceship Coupe” fully fails to deliver Justin as a sexually compelling icon. Containing lines like “And with the top down we’ll cruise around/Land and make love on the moon” it falls into the same puerile traps songs like the original “Ignition” fell into years ago. “Let The Groove Get In” is an interminable take on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” that adds nothing to the conversation. Both “Tunnel Vision” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” run three or four minutes simply content with being pleasant before becoming interesting.
On most albums, a series of “fine” songs would be saved by the presence of a few classics. But on this 70 minute album, those songs seem to last forever. And the “classics” are more remarkable for pop craftsmanship than ambition or innovation. To put it another way, the best songs are more “Bump N’ Grind” than “Trapped In The Closet,” more Usher than Frank Ocean, more “Let’s Get It On” than “What’s Going On.”
Brevity wouldn’t have made 20/20 a “great” album. But at its length, it’s a hard album to even recommend; so much runs too long, and most of its best songs gain little from the album format (sorry, “Blue Ocean Floor.”) Those that are open to closing your ears to Justin’s lyrics and simply letting the groove get in may find a lot to like, but most people will probably get antsy waiting for Justin to get out of his seat.
HIGHLIGHTS: “Pusher Love Girl,” “That Girl,” “Mirrors”
NOTE: While there’s a radio edit for “Mirrors” already, the most interesting portion of the song was cut. Get the full version.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Tunnel Vision”
CATALOG CHOICE: FutureSex/LoveSounds
NEXT STOP: Write Me Back, R. Kelly
AFTER THAT: Never Too Much, Luther Vandross