Justin Timberlake’s last album came out in 2006, which means it came out before Twitter, before your mom was on Facebook and before we had one of Jay-Z’s friends in the White House. Back then we had Hope, Jobs and Cash, and now we have the Music Internet, where albums—and your thought-out, reasoned, well-attended-to considerations of said album—go to die. The album came out this morning—not a joke, it literally came out this morning—and it’s possible that this will be one of the last websites to publish someone’s overwrought thoughts on an album that will be bought by hundreds of thousands of people who will never read any of the reviews. But the Music Internet won’t care; we’ve already moved on after publishing all our WE WERE FIRST! reviews 12-to-24 hours after the iTunes stream of this went public last Monday afternoon. Instead of maybe, you know, taking some time to live with the album and trying to figure out what’ll mean to people, we’re now hand-wringing indignantly about a terrible band playing SXSW complaining about playing SXSW. This is why people hate us.
So, despite this album almost certainly being the biggest seller of the year—this is going to have at least six singles like the last one—despite this being the first true mainstream music “event album” worth listening to since Watch the Throne, despite it sounding like a million bucks—no matter what anyone tells you that is NOT a negative thing, ever—the prevailing opinion is that it “sucks” and you should move on.
That response makes sense in one regard, because of all the things The 20/20 Experience actually is—a weirdly sequenced, sometimes overblown, but ultimately rewarding song cycle and not to mention the most fun album of 2013 so far—it’s certainly not a sequel to Futuresex/Lovesounds, which is what this needed to be for the Music Internet to do anything other than dismiss it in 24 hours and move on. Because when you’re trying to write a review 12 hours after a stream of the album comes out, it’s easier to just go, “This isn’t as good as the last one,” than to try to unpack the eight minute songs here. The expectations for 20/20 are understandable—Futuresex is the best pop album of this century, and that’s not even debatable; there isn’t even another album that is in its solar system—but they are an untenable illusion. That album has grown in estimation in the last seven years as people realized that it wasn’t insane to think that Justin “I Had Unironic Cornrows As Recently As 2001” Timberlake made a classic album. It wasn’t like the praise for that was universal. Far from it. It’s only gained “perfect” status recently.
That maybe bodes well for the long-term prospects of 20/20 Experience, an album that melds some of the sonic flourishes of Futuresex (Bollywood samples, grooves you could run a train on, grandiose outros, Timbaland stepping on some choruses with his bellowed vocals) with some of the developments in recent big budget pop (the “retro” soul, the attempt at Frank Ocean/Weeknd R&B sound sculpting on “Blue Ocean Floor”). One of the more refreshing things about 20/20 is that you get the sense that Timberlake and Timbaland could have just gone for broke and made 10 songs of EDM euro-pop and sold a billion downloads. Instead, they’re doing eight-minute big band ballroom soul with string arrangements (opener and highlight “Pusher Love Girl”), audacious re-writes of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” complete with samples of African music (“Let the Groove Get In”), big hair ballads with guitar solos (“Mirrors”), and doo-wop songs wherein Justin Timberlake fucks an alien in a space car (“Spaceship Coupe”). This lack of bending towards the Pop Radio of Today has been presented as one of 20/20 Experience’s biggest weaknesses, but imagine the response if this had a song like “Scream & Shout” on it. This would have been eviscerated more than it already has been.
Which is not to say that 20/20 Experience is some flawless thing that people are ripping to shreds for no reason. It’s just that kneejerk reactions 12 hours after the album stream comes out* aren’t going to focus on the real negatives here. Like that it’s shoddily sequenced; the intro of the band happens on the seventh song for some reason. The most mellow, worst track here (“Blue Ocean Floor”) is the closer, while the song with the Futuresex pedigree of being a song you will freak out to hear at 3 a.m. at a party in July (album highlight “Tunnel Vision”) is buried between two long crawlers. Or that basically every song has a two-minute outro, for some reason, as Timbaland and Timberlake have clearly confused (at least at times) length with importance.
Probably the most undersold part of Timberlake’s solo career–since Justified, when he put his career in the Neptunes’ hands—is how slaved over his music sounds. You know there were serious discussions over the composition of these songs; Timberlake confirmed as much in every interview leading up to the release. That makes him a rarity in the pop landscape. How much time do you think Robin Thicke’s record company lets him experiment in the studio? You think Chris Brown has the power to do two-minute outros on every single song on an album, even if that doesn’t work out all the time? Do you think that Justin Bieber’s handlers would let him pair up exclusively with one producer, even if that producer hasn’t had a huge hit in years? You think Trey Songz could convince Timbaland to back off the synth-scribblings and go back to slow BPM R&B production? Timberlake has taken a kind of control over his sound that allows him to be both mass appealing—my mom loves “Mirrors”—and sonically forward—“Tunnel Vision” is something that won’t be caught up to in a while—at the same damn time.
In the last week, we’ve been sold the idea that this album is somehow a “sellout” because Timberlake is one of the most famous people on earth, that he represented the “Suit & Tie” set before he made a song about wearing a suit and tie, and he took some Budweiser money, so he is too much of a “brand” to make music that really “connects” anymore (or something, I don’t get it either). According to Buzzfeed, he’s a luxury brand who can’t live in the world of Macklemore. If any of that was true, why are all the songs eight minutes and all over the place genre-wise? Why does the lead single have three untenable beat changes? That doesn’t sound like a sell-out; that sounds like a pop star using his considerable leverage to make a weird, sprawling album that people couldn’t digest in a 24-hour blog cycle.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that it’s a weird, discordant experience reading an ocean of kneejerk reviews that bury this album, when a week after hearing this I like it more than when I first heard it. It’s too fun of an experience and it sounds too good to dismiss in a 800-word dissection after two spins. It’s literally too big to fail. I mean, we’re burying this DOA when it’s, by a not inconsiderable margin, better than any pop album out this year. Are people really content with a pop radio dominated by Macklemore? How could Justin Timberlake, the pop star of this generation, being back–and doing an album that’s greatest crime is that it’s just good, instead of great—become such a divisive thing?
4 out of 5
*I know I keep repeating this idea, but I want to highlight how insane it is that we accept this as a consequence of modern record reviewing. How is it even possible that some of the first reviewers got more than like three spins of the album in? They had to have listened to it on their computer with an open Word document. That’s Live Blogging a record. And more importantly, are the rewards for getting a review up “first” really worth it? Who is it benefitting? Are people clamoring for the “first” review or the “best” review do you think? And not to say that this is the best, because it’s not.