Justin Timberlake is many things—singer, dancer, actor, dependable SNL host, all-around entertainer—but above all he is canny as hell. He would have to be to transcend the Orlando kiddie-entertainment cabal that birthed Timberlake’s career, to shake off his teenybopper past to the point where it’s not only become a career footnote, but one he can winkingly reference on The 20/20 Experience without a trace of protective irony or cynicism. By waiting nearly seven years to release his follow-up to 2006’s multiplatinum FutureSex/LoveSounds, during which time he refused to acknowledge whether he’d follow it up at all—a move indicative of said canniness—Timberlake ensured that the buzz surrounding his much-anticipated return to music would provide him the insulation necessary to make the album he wanted to make, unbeholden to the demands of current trends and commercial expectations.
By essentially playing hard-to-get with those demanding a follow-up album, Timberlake was able to manufacture his return on his terms rather than those of audiences. (Not that the promotion surrounding the album wasn’t extraordinarily calculated and shrewd, but that’s another article.) As evidenced by the album’s self-classification as an “experience,” 20/20 is a statement album, one that succeeds more often than it fails, but occasionally buckles under the weight of its ambition, which is grander that its flimsy thematic contents are capable of sustaining over the long haul. And at 70 minutes, this record is indeed a long haul, albeit a dependably entertaining one.
Concerned primarily with matters of sex, drugs, and looking damn good while doing both, The 20/20 Experience makes a lot of noise while saying very little of consequence. But that noise is the appeal, a luxurious blend of flashy production and pure, unadulterated chutzpah that deepens the hue and tenor of the album, turning it into an exercise in sophisticated sexiness—or perhaps sexy sophistication. Timberlake’s preternatural assuredness is a major component of this, somehow rendering statements like “You can be my strawberry bubblegum, and I’ll be your blueberry lollipop” into suave, Prince-like come-ons—mainly through the liberal application of falsetto. It’s no surprise that Timberlake is back in “SexyBack” mode on 20/20; it’s what he does best, seducing with hooded eyes at the intersection of sweaty soul and teen-idol crooning. But that smolder can only sustain itself for so long, and most of 20/20’s songs—which average seven minutes—stretch it to the verge of its breaking point.
The good thing about 20/20’s extended track lengths—which continues a trend toward long songs Timberlake began with FutureSex—is that almost every song has multiple movements, so listeners who aren’t feeling a particular track need only wait a couple minutes for it to turn into a different song. Rather than drafting the production talents of current big-name hitmakers, 20/20 continues Timberlake’s resolute dedication to Timbaland, whose production here is even showier than it was on FutureSex, although his vocal contributions are thankfully toned down somewhat. While nearly every song files neatly enough under the headers of “R&B” (the more idiosyncratic strain of the genre most recently propagated by Frank Ocean) and “soul” (particularly the psychedelic-styled ’70s iteration), Timbaland makes ample use of his signature skittering synths and jumpy beats. His contributions are most audible on tracks like the slinky, slithering “Tunnel Vision” and especially the dance-floor bait “Don’t Hold The Wall,” whose Eastern flourishes and sexy-baby vocal samples are drawn straight from Chapter One of the Timbaland playbook.
But Timberlake, ever the showman, never abdicates the spotlight to his producer, keeping pace with every dip and turn without breaking a sweat. Kickoff track “Pusher Love Girl” is not only the album’s best track, but it’s also a showcase of all the tricks Timberlake and his producer will employ throughout the album, sashaying from mellow crooning to soaring falsetto to hip-hop swagger and back again as the track morphs and builds behind him. The endearingly goofy “Strawberry Bubblegum” shows similar versatility, as well as a hint of the sense of humor that has made Timberlake so resolutely likeable. (Keep an ear out for a small nod to the late-period ’N Sync single “Pop.”) Similarly busy leadoff single “Suit & Tie” doesn’t coalesce nearly was well as either of these—in part due to a wedged-in verse from Jay-Z, which seems like an odd concession on such a self-assured, personality-driven record—but it is one of Timberlake’s finer vocal performances on 20/20.
An album so prone to grandeur is bound to have some divisive tracks, and 20/20 is no exception. The high-energy “Let The Groove Get In” is a nice change-up, letting go of the album’s cool, sophisticated pretense for a frenetic, sweaty dance-chant, but it also sounds a little bit like Justin Timberlake by way of The Miami Sound Machine. And the album-closing “Blue Ocean Floor” is much dreamier and deeper than anything that precedes it, qualities that make it either refreshingly profound or shamelessly derivative, depending on how much weed and Channel Orange listeners have been consuming lately.
The 20/20 Experience doesn’t lack for ideas, and anyone who’s witnessed Timberlake’s dogged pursuit of all-around-entertainer status can acknowledge the combination of enthusiasm and skill in his performance. He’s eager but not desperate, which goes a long way toward selling the album’s transparent bid for “classic” status. But there are hairline fractures splintering the record that keep it from being rock-solid: an overly repetitive chorus here, a distracting production flourish there, a superfluous minute tacked on nearly everywhere. Timberlake has always been more entertainer than artist—it’s just how he’s built, born and raised to be a pop-cultural polymath—but The 20/20 Experience is the closest he’s come to bridging the two. As an album, it’s as easy to like as Timberlake himself; but also like Timberlake, it’s defined by a certain shrewdness, a whiff of calculation that makes it impossible to separate the performer and the performance. Luckily, Timberlake is such a skilled performer, such distinctions aren’t really necessary.