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Friday, March 29, 2013

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience (Release Date: 3-19-2012)

        Is there anyone who Justin Timberlake hasn't been over the course of his two decades of fame? The entertainer began his illustrious run on The Mickey Mouse Show at the ripe-old age of 12, the Disney gig soon swapped out in favor of headlining the boy-band-to-end-all-boy-bands, N*SYNC. When the 90's fad that had seen the band to the highest heights of fame suddenly disappeared into the ether, reinvention was once again in order, JT proving just as up to the task. The last time we saw the troubadour sing and strut, he was trading in some of his nice-guy sheen for come-hither lyrics and bedroom beats, but that was way back in 2006 (2007 if we're counting tour dates). His last 7+ years have been spent on the silver screen, and while his merit as an actor remains contested in certain circles, his steady stream of work (not to mention being cast by the likes of David Fincher and the Coen Brothers) ought to be validation enough. A couple of tuesdays ago saw his long-anticipated return to the world of music, and given the man's past, it should come as no surprise that The 20/20 Experience shows the chameleon employing a stark change of shades once again.

        The seedy, sweaty pulse of FutureSex/LoveSounds only makes cameos here; The 20/20 Experience is much more interested in live instrumentation, expansive sound worlds, and allusions to yesteryear's big-band glories. Timberlake has made this clear from the start of the disc's campaign for world (see: airwave and record sales) dominance, leading off with the aptly titled/themed single Suit & Tie, continuing with the formal aesthetic of nearly all promotional material. Though the album spans genres and ages with positively reckless abandon, the feeling that this isn't just a bunch of button-mashing remains welcomely constant. Be it the Motown strut of That Girl, or the caribbean rhythm of Let the Groove In, the album's instrumentation sounds like, you know, real instruments. Credit long-time Timberlake collaborator Timbaland, who's production is never less than lively and exciting, and who's never meet a risk he wasn't chomping at the bit to take. In fact, this propensity towards big gambles comes to define the record as a whole, as likely to magnetize as it is to repel.

        With this added sonic density comes ballooned-out song lengths; only one of 20/20's ten tracks clocks in at under five minutes, most prone to stretch out to around seven ticks. Presented in movements, most numbers burst forth from the word, 'go,' only to be reframed in a spacey, down-tempo redux in the closing moments. These bold structures, and the enveloping repetition which they employ, don't feel especially Top 40 friendly, and would likely prove endless amidst the A.D.D. onslaught of modern hit radio stations, but damn, can they fill up a room. It's an album that occupies space, and car speakers might not really be able to handle it.

        But perhaps even more eye-catching than the rampant genre-hopping or extended playtimes is the disc's overwhelmingly positive outlook, a major rarity in the work of towering pop stars. While it seems goofy to credit Timberlake's recent marriage to actress Jessica Biel as the source of all smiles, JT himself certainly welcomes the theory. The tracks here aren't so much about getting that girl as they are about already having that girl, and loving every damn minute of it. This is never more poignant than on Mirrors, a no-holds-barred avowal of his love and appreciation for his better half that gushes with unselfconscious affection. It's cheesy. We're talking, 'might cause bloating and nausea in those with lactose intolerance,' cheesy, but it never feels like a put-on. Timberlake plays his Romeo both epic and straight-faced, belting through the tune's bombastic twin movements, inviting all people and nations to bask in his over-the-top joy. It's one of the best songs of the year so far, and I'm still trying to decide exactly how guilty I feel for writing that.

        When it's all said and done, Justin Timberlake's latest is just about the last thing you'd expect: an album without a country. While its enormity and ambition might entice music nerds and elitists, an unmissable dose of corniness is nearly omni-present, the singer making embarrassing comparisons between his lover and addictive substances (Pusher Love Girl), crooning smoothly about Strawberry Bubblegum, and driving his Spaceship Coupe through a glittering cosmos of deserved eye-rolls. Those who just want to hear the guy bring SexyBack might even get a little bored, prone to skip outros, disinterested in the disc's joyous, contented world-view. All of this could lead to diminishing returns where bank accounts are concerned (though it sure hasn't yet), but those willing to take a moment and let Timberlake and Timbaland's ambitious offering marinate will almost undoubtably find themselves coming back for seconds. 

Grade: B+

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