Since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake has been focusing on the visual medium over the aural type, albeit with varying success – The Love Guru and Yogi Bear being cases in point. Yet he also challenged himself as an actor through key roles in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and David Fincher’s The Social Network. Indeed, the incomprehensible breadth and nature of Southland Tales – which will always sharply divide opinion, from cult classic to self-indulgent dirge – shows that Timberlake isn’t easily daunted or scared: he enjoys taking risks.
Now, almost seven years on from FutureSex/LoveSound, The 20/20 Experience, which sees Timberlake return with hip-hop producer Timbaland along with the addition of Jerome ‘J-Roc’ Harmon, sees Timberlake take further creative – perhaps rather extravagant – risks.
In a recent interview Timberlake explained that if Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen can do 10-minute long songs, why can’t he? “We’ll figure out the radio edits later…” This is no longer the man who was in *NSYNC and wrote Cry Me A River, nor is it the same artist who created one of the best pop/crossover albums in years with FutureSex/LoveSounds. No, it seems Timberlake sees himself not only as a credible artist, but also as a saviour of The Album.
Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen existed during the height of the album as a creative medium: they existed in the era of the record shop, not the Internet. Now, thanks to the Internet, the idea of the record shop is fading for all but the most eager, while the concept of the album is regularly being questioned.
The 20/20 Experience wants to bridge these gaps: an album that sports tracks averaging around seven minutes in length, yet is being previewed on iTunes; the essence of the album track considered first, but with the radio still in mind. In some ways, it fits into Timberlake’s vision for MySpace – bridge into Facebook and the like instead of competing against them – although that has yet to really get anywhere.
Anyway, Timberlake is determined to cement himself as the crossover pop musician of our time and 20/20 his grand shot at it: his aim to blend pop and hip-hop with class, mix sexiness with substance. Appeal to teenage girls, but woo the musos as well – or should that be the other way around? The video for Suit & Tie, directed by Fischer and featuring a master of the crossover, Jay-Z, demonstrates that blend particularly well.
Album opener Pusher Love Girl begins with incredibly lush string arrangements and lounge-sounding keyboarding, before lurching into slow, grinding hip-hop beats. Timberlake’s vocal has retained some of its boyish appeal but now has a measured, kind of sophisticated charm.
The lyrics themselves aren’t that unusual – boy wants and likes girl – but it’s in the last three minutes of the eight-minute opener that the track comes into more life with bolder beats, string samples and lyrics that describe this mysterious pusher girl as “my heroine, my cocaine, my plum wine” and a “hydroponic candy jelly bean”: kitsch and not so sophisticated, yet tongue-in-cheek.
Following track Suit & Tie brings further pop sophistication to the fore with its blasts of jazz-like horns and lyrics attesting to the power of being sartorially inspired on the dance floor – “As long as I’ve got my suit and tie, I’m going to leave it on the floor tonight…let me show you a few things”. Yet Jay-Z’s interlude brings a drop in tempo and a tinge of edginess, taking it from a dressed up pop song into something darker – from a night out on the dance floor to a sort of social commentary on consumerism (“I’m at the restaurant, my rant disturbing the guests, years of distress, tears on the dress, trying to hide her face with some make up sex, this is truffle season, Tom Ford tuxedos for no reason…”).
Meanwhile, Don’t Hold the Wall begins with a gorgeous sounding Beach Boys-like chorus, before brusquely shifting into a sort of hip-hop/Bollywood/Bhangra mix, as Timberlake tries to entice a lady to “Dance! [pause] Don’t hold the wall!”. We then head back into Beach Boys choruses before quickly switching into drum and bass loops and vocoder backing vocals.
All these quirky and sharp changes in tempo and style glue these tracks together, with Tunnel Vision ebbing and veering through its six-plus minutes while Strawberry Bubblegum, rife with immature giggle-inducing double-entendres (“Hey, smacking that strawberry bubblegum”, “If you be my strawberry bubblegum, then I’ll be your blueberry lollipop – and I’ll love you until I make it pop”), Barry White-esque spoken word backing sections and shifts into appropriate ’70s funk-cum-porno keyboards makes it difficult to dislike, although many will likely scoff. Indeed, 20/20 does occasionally threaten to tip over the edge one way or the other; Spaceship Coupe is farcical and rather boy band-like (“With the top down, cruise around, then we’ll make love on the Moon”), in turn contradicting the invention shown earlier in the album.
Nevertheless, penultimate track Mirrors shows Timberlake at his best: a true eight-minute pop epic, with hand-clapping samples and strings before leaping into a backing cacophony of vocoder vocals from all varying directions, coupled with gentle keys morphing into a myriad of varying synth-based all sorts. Timbaland and Timberlake really make a superb partnership: this is genuinely inventive, creative and capturing.
JT has again done a fine job here. The 20/20 Experience shows the pop album isn’t dead: if anything, Timberlake has reinvigorated it as a commercial medium that can be popular yet creative and ambitious. For some 20/20 may be difficult to digest, but Timberlake’s aspiration and vision really can’t be faulted. He is this generation’s crossover artist, no doubt.