While I can easily say that I’ve never been a fan of N’Sync, I have grown to respect what Justin Timberlake did on his 2006 record, Futuresex/Love sounds. While the record wasn’t great, and put too much emphasis on the first half, there were plenty of songs that stuck with you and were a perfect example of what pop music should do. Justin Timberlake spent a handful of years not dealing with music and focusing his attention on acting in movies instead including a fantastic role in The Social Network in 2010. Now he’s finally put his focus back on music with The 20/20 Experience, and it delivers. Yes, this is really nothing but a pop record, and it might seem a little bloated on first listen with many of the songs going on for over six minutes, but this record shows that Timberlake is still a master of pop music.
The first song, “Pusher Love Girl” tosses in a Stevie Wonder vibe with it’s funky keyboards. The lyrics are quite great too with lines about “rolling you up and letting you run through” and “I don’t ever want to come down off loving you”. Beyond these lines, there’s not much here in the way of clever lyrics, things are quite clear on The 20/20 Experience. Timbaland is back on all the tracks here with some of his best production (the guy has worked with almost every pop star over the past ten years). Despite Timbaland’s great production, the only guest that really shows up on The 20/20 Experience is Jay-Z on “Suit and Tie” and he’s not even there long enough to make that big of an impression. Sure, if anyone was going to pop up on a song like “Suit and Tie” there’s nobody better than Jay-Z, but it seems slightly pointless and very light.
“That Girl” is the simplest track here with the shortest track on the record, it also goes back to the sixties with it’s soul sound and Timberlake introducing himself and the band as “JT and Tennessee Kids”, the song runs down with some very funky grooves that sounds great with Timberlake’s voice. It’s also a perfect example of using an older, familiar sound and mixing with newer sounds with the use of modern beats and mixing. “Don’t Hold The Wall” uses some tribal beats and sticks with that for the first few minutes before it shifts off into a deeper beat with it’s use of bass.
Many of these songs have a similar format of starting off in one spot and repeating it until you think the song is going to end, and then the song takes a turn to turn into a slightly different track during the last several minutes. This isn’t a new trick, but it’s still a very great one when used correctly, and it’s used perfectly on many of the songs here. “Strawberry Bubblegum” seems to have three parts to it with the beginning vocals being altered into a deep range and then bringing Timberlake in with some sweet and precise beats. The song then fades out to become a different track that sounds like something Sly and The Family Stone would lay out with the funky keyboards and guitars.
“Tunnel Vision” seems stuck with it’s sampled vocal that runs through most of the song, and it can get a little irritating on first listen, although it really can put the listener in trance at a certain point (much like what Radiohead’s Thom Yorke said “if something sounds great, than repeat it”). “Spaceship Coupe” is one of the few tracks with a heavy bass line that resonates through most of the song, and the song ends up being one of the sexiest moments on the record (which is really saying something), and there’s a really nice guitar solo (which is also really saying something).
“Let The Groove Get In” has some very eighties sounds going on, it sounds like a highly energetic (and talented) Lionel Ritchie. There’s some great tribal beats and some horns. Although the chorus does get too repetitive, it really gets stuck in your head and it’s hard to let go once you start to hear it. Once the song shifts into it’s second half, it really turns up the eighties soul and sounds almost too much like Ritchie’s “All Night Long” (maybe it’s just the fact it repeats the title over and over).
At the end Timberlake can’t escape his past. N’Sync might end up haunting him forever. And it’s a good thing. He’s managed to take his weakness and turn it into his ultimate strength. “Strawberry Bubblegum” sounds like a Barry White song at first, but the moments where Justin goes “Love you till I make you POP” is a perfect reference to “Pop”.And the best track on The 20/20 Experience, “Mirrors”, could have been a N’Sync track with it’s contemporary R&B sound with stings and vocals looped over to create the beat. But what really brings “Mirrors” beyond the rest of the songs on The 20/20 Experience, are Justin Timberlake’s vocals. If “Mirrors”, or any song on this record, were done by anyone else I feel like they wouldn’t have worked. There’s a certain way that Timberlake sings, especially when he reaches into his higher range, that has a very strong effect. “Mirrors” takes Timberlake’s vocals to their most emotive while still keeping plenty of great beats swirling through the track.
The final song, “Blue Ocean Floor” is a very nice way to close out the record with it’s slower tempo and almost drone-like strings that go on throughout. Timberlake keeps his vocals in a higher register through most of the song, and it’s very beautiful. It’s almost meditative, and I wish there was at least one other song with this kind of feel applied to it.
The 20/20 Experience might not strike some people as a fantastic record at first, but upon repeated listens and becoming familiar with the songs, the album does end up being a very rewarding listen. Looking at this record through the lens of pop music is almost too easy, and many of the songs deserve more than just looking at them in such a limited view. Like many of the great pop albums throughout history, this record grabs from plenty of influences over the years, but it has enough ambition and creativity to set itself apart from the rest.
Rating: 8.4 out of 10.