by Rob Wilson
The 20/20 Experience, Vol. 1
I cannot help respecting what Justin Timberlake has done in making The 20/20 Experience. Let us not forget that he’s still one of the biggest names in pop music regardless of the seven-year break he’s taken between solo albums releases – just look at the amount of hype the album has received: he’s managed to make the cover of cheesy tween magazines as well as the front page of Pitchfork during the same media frenzy. But why? Well, as mainstream pop comeback albums in the 21st century go, it’s already clear before the play button is pressed that The 20/20 Experience is incredibly unique in one sense at least – it clocks in at just over 70 minutes, with three of the longest tracks reaching beyond eight minutes in length. As a song-writing and conceptual decision it’s a huge risk, but Justin has been building up to it by testing these particular waters by composing extended album versions of his singles before. On his last album, Futuresex/Lovesounds, Justin tinkered with structural experimentation by instrumentally deconstructing the first few minutes of one or two tracks and turning them into complete album versions with contrasting movements and reversed musical directions to complete seven minute epics such as ‘What Goes Around…/…Comes Around’, but never before have his ideas been demonstrated in this manner before.
For starters, Timberlake seems much fonder of the stronger ideas he’s had for most of the tracks that are sure to be future singles. Example: album opener, ‘Pusher Love Girl’, advances from twirling strings to onomatopoeic percussion and stories of drug use within seconds before reaching a resolute hook – Justin’s voice is tightly backed up with warm multi-tracked harmonies and choral effects. And for five of the eight minutes that this track reaches, the array of stimulating beats and delightful melodies work impressively as an introduction to Justin’s first album in over half a decade. But where it could perhaps transform into something else altogether, like we saw seven years ago with Futuresex/Lovesounds’ ideas, ‘Pusher Love Girl’ repeats its beat and chord sequence, which at this point over the track’s eight minute length is nowhere near as effective, while Timberlake’s voice becomes a distant echo, removing immediacy and intimacy of the initial vocal delivery during first five minutes. What starts out as a defiant and confident album opener becomes an overcooked idea, and I can’t imagine that was Justin’s intention.
To speed things along a little, lead-single (and second track) ‘Suit & Tie’ greets us with a strong fanfare of synthesised horns and a huge sense of surprise, only for the sudden immediacy to be drained completely by a lethargic hook that yawns its way through Justin’s description of his Sunday best over a beat that leaves far too much space between each boom and snap. When ‘Suit & Tie’ turns the key to fire up the ignition, the lazy beat does pick up in tempo and creativity as a discreet piano run trickles underneath yet more synth horns and more of Justin’s squeaky-clean delivery – but distant memories of Jamiroqaui’s ‘Virtual Insanity’ hang over ‘Suit & Tie’ like a bad smell. One thing that does briefly separate ‘Suit & Tie’ from Jamiroquai is Jay-Z’s rather short appearance, but the dawdling beat returns underneath his bars and leaves his verse wanting. Once again I must take a guess that perhaps Justin’s intentions still aren’t being received over at this end.
As The 20/20 Experience settles down and begins to click into gear, Timberlake doesn’t hold back on song length and stretching his ideas out. As track four, ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ – a song that relies on metaphors to compare both male and female genitalia to confectionery – finishes, we’re a mammoth 28 minutes into proceedings and nothing that has greeted us in the first four tracks justifies the amount of time it’s taken to get there. Even Timbaland’s cameo on ‘Don’t Hold the Wall’ – a conversation between himself and a female, in which he compliments her with a sense of ambiguity – isn’t as intense or creative as his appearances on Timberlake’s past material, such as his guest verse on Justin’s first solo worldwide smash ‘Cry Me a River’. However, things are certainly dragged up by the shoulders and refreshed significantly by the boisterous, bright and breakbeat inspired ‘Tunnel Vision’. A sampled hook ranges from dancing over energetic beats to remaining slightly audible at the very bottom of the mix as Timberlake addresses a beautiful woman, for which he only has eyes for. But again, Timberlake’s fondness for the initial idea, which in this case is the sampled hook, means that it remains constant for the entire 7 minute duration, and no lively beat or injection of staccato strings can prevent it from becoming tiresome.
At this point, you may be surprised to know that the shortest track on The 20/20 Experience, ‘That Girl’, is pure filler. Justin Timberlake, for all of the experimental ideas and overcooked creations he’s put forward for this album, is a pop and modern R & B artist at heart. In the past he’s written and performed some of the 21st century’s most successful, groovy and catchy pop songs to reach the charts, so why at this stage in his career has he decided to drag out ideas that would have worked perfectly in the format he’s been so well-versed in for the entirety of his career? For example, why did he feel the need to make ‘Mirrors’ a huge eight minutes long? The penultimate track on The 20/20 Experience is arguably the most ambitious song Timberlake has ever written in terms of size of sound, instruments used and layers developed. It gives us the most gripping, stadium-filling five minutes on the entire album and arguably the best five minutes of music Timberlake has produced since ‘Rock Your Body’, but beyond the point where the radio edit would cut off, the album version extends beyond any restraint or control. The 20/20 Experience gives off the impression that Justin Timberlake was actually beyond incredibly fond of his best ideas to the point where he wasn’t happy with them at all until they resembled a more than well-done steak.
Although, I have to hand it to Justin – he may well have written the first album I’ve ever listened to that I’ve wanted to split vertically. If every track on this album finished around the five minute mark it could have been well on its way to being one of my favourite albums of 2013. It is such a shame that no matter how ambitious, creative, grandiose, experimental and diverse The 20/20 Experience is, the ideas on display just aren’t interesting or direct enough to warrant the time out of each listener’s day that it takes. For example, Kanye West’s fantastic 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy clocks in at 68 minutes and just like The 20/20 Experience shares experimental production choices, a link between pop, hip-hop and R &B and songs that stretch over the traditional length of three to four minutes. But the huge difference between the two is that Kanye West never loses control of the ambition, the creation and the experimentation and creates a level all of his own in this respect despite having so many guest producers, collaborators, range of song styles and song writers. To put it simply, Kanye’s ability to be so incredibly introspective and self-aware keeps his 2010 release interesting right up until the last note. In this case, Kanye is the man stood on the side of the street juggling knives, bowling balls and pieces of fruit, while Justin is the small child that struggles to keep in time while learning from him, which illustrates the problem – Justin can’t juggle.
The radio-friendly single has been Justin’s biggest friend over his 15-year career as a pop artist, and it appears he’s still operating on a creative level within a radio-single’s length limitations. Even on his longer tracks in the past, ‘What Goes Around…/…Comes Around’, Justin stuck two ideas together to create a seven minute track, rather than creating an entire seven or eight minute track based around one idea. The 20/20 Experience is Justin trying his hand at this, and it’s not exactly fallen flat on its face… it has just simply punched above its weight. Albums that extend beyond traditional lengths and reach out of the average listeners’ comfort zones are not a problem in the slightest – in fact, I greatly admire those who attempt to challenge not only the listener but themselves as artists – and I said at the very start of this piece that I admire Justin Timberlake for branching out and taking a huge risk, but it appears that he’s been struck down by the infamous double-edged sword where other artists have taken a hold of its handle.