Justin Timberlake is currently streaming his third album, The 20/20 Experience on iTunes in advance of its Friday release date. Here, seven members of the SPIN braintrust give hasty and completely impulsive opinions...
He was creatively spent, justifiably smug, and entirely self-satisfied post-FutureSex, willing to leave the blackjack table at the perfect time as almost no still-alive pop stars are willing to do. But we bitched and bitched and bitched (and made sure his ill-fated Jordan-in-the-minors acting vehicles bombed and bombed and bombed) until he obliged us with the creatively spent, justifiably smug, entirely self-satisfied comeback album we deserve. Too big to fail and involving too many crazy talented people to actually suck, this is nonetheless ludicrously bloated and almost offensively opulent — Watch the Throne as a romantic comedy, except it's neither funny nor particularly romantic; not so much planking on a million as sexing Jessica Biel on same. Apologies, but the This Is Completely Unnecessary camp wins this round, though JT coulda told you that long ago: The title is a reference to hindsight, by God.
Early score: 5/10
Christopher R. Weingarten
Don't let the waterfalls of strings and snaky backmasked noises fool you, this is as sleek and uncomplicated as a single called "Suit and Tie" would suggest. If you're disappointed (like I am) that this is yacht-rap Timbaland chilling in Alexander Wang when you really want Timbaland in a Voltron suit playing rhythmic Asteroids then well, fuck you it's truffle season. This is an almost statistically perfect storm of contempory rap and R&B: Drake's pitched-down purple tears, Watch the Throne's art-dealer EDM, the expansiveness of that D'Angelo album everyone really wants right now, and the ORANGE Ocean floor of "Blue Ocean Floor," an R&B weeper that sounds like an iron lung and the band that did "My Iron Lung." It hits all the right notes for 2013, and then hits them for seven minutes with a string section. However there was technically nothing saying this thing couldn't sound like DJ Mustard, Solange, Death Grips, and Future either (Timberlake saying he wants to make love on the moon doesn't count). On their last two albums, Timbo and Timber have made mutant Bollywood, robot Blaxploitation, and kicked one of the first disco balls in the EDM revolution. They used to hit hard, and now are just making suave, scientifically of-the-moment pop. Playing it too safe, too fresh, too clean, the duo that made a generation's Off The Wall have entered their Invincible stage.
Early score: 5/10
Justin Timberlake insisted that he wouldn't return to music until he felt truly inspired — until the music, as it were, returned to him. So, what finally brought the two back together? Marriage, funnily enough. The 20/20 Experience is luxurious, but above all it luxuriates in the bliss of love. Except for the blisteringly funky "Let the Groove Get In," the album floats along on a very mild tempo — you get the sense that Timberlake is in no rush to do anything but enjoy the company of his wife. If FutureSex/LoveSounds was for the club, then its follow up is staked on songs ("Pusher Love Girl," "Strawberry Bubblegum," "That Girl") that make you want to bask in the warm glow of a weekend afternoon. Its sound is rooted both in Memphis soul and Timberlake/Timbaland's own forever-futuristic sonic experimentation, but its ethos is similar to D'Angelo's once divisive Voodoo, a wonderful record that too was pilloried for being too into its own grooves.
Early score: 8/10
On Saturday Night Live last week, comeback kid and corporate synergy savant Justin Timberlake seemingly threw some shade Kanye's way, changing the "Suit & Tie" lyric "Shit so sick / Got a hit and picked up a habit" to "My hit's so sick / Got rappers acting dramatic." It was perceived as sly and elegant. In sharp contrast of course, to 'Ye, who stood on a stage and gave a hyper-cogent, endlessly entertaining rant about soul-sucking corporate reliance in 2013 with a quick aside about why "Suit & Tie" kind of stinks, which you know, it totally does. JT's Kanye diss was hedged and safe, like this entire comeback. The 20/20 Experience is padded with distracting, throat-clearing intros and outros and way too many songs that push the six minute mark — because that's ambitious, right?
The lifestyle being pimped here is self-consciously sophisticated. Try to imagine a supercut of every ficky-ficky-wicky-wicky Timbaland thing crammed inside of some Robin Thicke's second album's shit songs shooting for Maxwell's BLACKsummers'night and you're lukewarm. Actually that sounds pretty awesome and well, The 20/20 Experience is not awesome. It does have plenty of FutureSex/LoveSounds' nonsense word-combining ("Pusher Love Girl," "Spaceship Coupe") and not enough of the MJ-channeling found on Justified (save for the ambient robot funk of "Strawberry Bubblegum," a screaming standout), or even the bonkers digi-love power pop of 'N Sync's No Strings Attached. These are tedious half-formed songs buttressed by capital-A album moves and a whole music industry that really, really, really wants this guy to succeed, again. Surf the new MySpace, sip a Bud Light Platinum, and feel mad classy listening to this one!
Early score: 5/10
If Mayor Bloomberg succeeded in banning large, sugary drinks, it only follows that Hizzoner would have had to put the kibosh on JT's magnum-sized opus. Pop doesn't come any bubblier than The 20/20 Experience, a 64-ounce Big Gulp of sugar-rush falsetto, high-caloric harmonies, fizzy synths, sticky licks, and effervescent drum programming; songs stretch to seven or eight or nine minutes apiece, and they're sequenced to give the impression of an endless gush of intros and outros and false endings and codas. The whole thing billows like cotton candy in an anti-gravity chamber. Timberlake knows it, too — hell, he goes so far as to compare the object of his affection to strawberry bubblegum. (That song, "Strawberry Bubblegum," also happens to feature some lyrics of shockingly little nutritional value, like, "Don't ever change your flavor, 'cause I love the taste" and "Please don't change nothin', because your flavor's original." Are those lines a side effect of all the shilling for Madison Avenue that he's been doing lately?)
The reference points flash past in rapid-fire succession: Philly disco strings, trunk-rattling 808s, Portishead's organ stabs, Sade, Michael Jackson, baritone sax, neon synths, Diwali rhythms, Middle Eastern chants, beat-boxing, African percussion, back-masked pianos, Appalachian fiddle, crickets — you name it. The coda of "Strawberry Bubblegum" sounds like Steely Dan covering D'Angelo; "Spaceship Coupe" interpolates Basement Jaxx and Prince. "Let the Groove Get In" starts off as an African house jam flecked with modal strings, and it ends up as Latin freestyle as rendered by the Memphis Horns, while "Tunnel Vision" is dubstep made from live drums, like Hudson Mohawke remixing the Roots. EDM influences are all over the album, in foreground and background alike — jungle breaks, bleepy trance arpeggios, gravelly Moog bass — but they've been absorbed and internalized in a way that's rare for pop music these days. That goes for everything on the record: As opulently overstuffed as the album is, it's still subtle, nuanced, and surprisingly tasteful. There's little look-ma-no-hands showing off here; as audacious as the The 20/20 Experience is, Tim and Tim make it sound easy. Maximalism has rarely sounded so streamlined.
Early score: 8/10
First things first, this is a beautiful-sounding album. There's not a moment on it that doesn't seem tenderly built to hit the eardrum just so: lush, grown-ass string arrangements; emotive ambient tension; that one burst of Afrobeat percussion; the futuristic folding in of strange beatwork; vintage boy-band yearning. Yes, it plays well, but The 20/20 Experience clearly aspires to be more. When you get beneath the gloss, you'll find two very seasoned industry lifers — Timberlake and Timbaland — doing their best to remake channel ORANGE in their own broadly appealing image. But you don't achieve Frank Ocean-level transcendence by simply expanding the length of a soul song to eight minutes and adding intriguing production shifts. That man's appeal comes from his unique combination of profound worldliness and incredible intimacy — things which Justin can't seem to deliver regardless of how charming, savvy, or vocally blessed he is. This is a gorgeous and, yes, creative work, but without the lyrics to match its aural ambitions, it's only halfway there. Alt-R&B junkies aren't likely to loop 20/20 in their headphones and JT's old fanbase is liable to shrug the Experience off in favor of something that can actually move hips. "Don't hold the wall," Timberlake commands on the song of the same name, but who's actually dancing?
Early score: 7/10
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
It's almost an inevitable narrative: an R&B singer, once forging new paths, looks back to the classics, to Motown, to Stax, and to his own catalogue, hoping to mimeograph prior successes. Though conventional, it's potentially a fail-free prospect, particularly when accompanied by the kind of star power Timberlake wields — a multi-tiered career arc including a seriously regarded acting career and entrepreneurship that includes a stake in the new MySpace. JT is set up, even considering quitting a music career for a hot minute (though not as ceremoniously as his collaborator Jay-Z's failed retirement) — and the lack of focus shows on The 20/20 Experience. Buoyed off lead single "Suit and Tie" and its subsequent lukewarm reception, Timberlake is flipping all switches, adhering to his Memphisian old-soul roots, resurrecting ideas from 2007's wildly popular FutureSex/LoveSounds, experimenting around and seeing what sticks. It's a potential hot mess brought to near-total but underwhelming cohesion by Timbaland, a legend who knows from reverting back to Old Reliable. "Let the Groove Get In" is an unexpected, post-M.I.A. experiment in global forms — Arabic pop, Afro-Cuban son, and a vague tinge of dancehall in the kicks — that's more interesting than most of the record, as centerless as "Waka Waka," Shakira's World Cup anthem yet eons more vital. "Strawberry Bubblegum"'s so-serious electro (and cunnilingus metaphor?) roils out into a wan interpolation of Sly and the Family Stone's torpid, exceptionally erotic "If You Want Me To Stay," though Timbaland's signature meandering outros, nearly two decades on, remain a satisfying way to saunter out of a song.
The formulas are proven, but they're formulas — Timberlake's quivering/propositional falsetto quivering sex (this time with commitment), Timberland's signature beatbox-y boom-click kickdrums and long-proven penchant for Bollywood soundtracks. There are a couple of weakish, deja vu simulacras from FutureSex/LoveSounds, the duo's high watermark, and surprising tics pulled from other artists — the R Kellyan "Spaceship Coupe" sexaphor conceit, which also cribs Ciara's "Promise" coo! ooh! ooh!s. The 20/20 Experience is okay. But what can you say — "Suit & Tie"'s a grower for palm tree days, a good choice in a playlist next to Frank O's "Sweet Life." Justin Timberlake also owns part of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Early score: 5/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 6.14