March 13, 2013

Album Review: Justin Timberlake's The 20 / 20 Experience

Pop music has every right to be given the utmost respect, but there's also the understanding that only a select few achieve greatness by crossing that fine line which normally separates originality from immediate accessibility. Both a blessing and a challenge for critics, the Internet age has blurred this line in recent years, seeing that mainstream heavyweights such as Beyoncé and Usher mine the independent landscape for articulate producers to innovate their aesthetic into something smart and refined rather than chewing out familiar radio bubblegum. Counter-industry rebels like Robyn and Charli XCX on the other hand cull the genre’s accessible sides to craft sophisticated dance pop without sinking their ambitions down to meet the lowest common denominator.

In the former's world, a mainstream pop star is arguably as good as the producer behind the voice, and this certainly doesn’t absolve one Justin Timberlake from the mix. The social media-savvy every-man cemented his transition as a reformed manufactured boy band member into a serious contender to inhabit the King of Pop’s vacated throne with the help of Timbaland on 2006’s EDM kick-start and Pitchfork-friendly crossover FutureSex / LoveSounds, but in the years he stepped away to go Hollywood while still maintaining his place as the litmus by which each of his contemporaries should aspire, pop's mass market has figured out his blueprint for making good with listeners and critics alike. Not helping the matter is that Timbaland's once-groundbreaking signature production of hypnotically suave electronic pump has been fatigued as well, replicating itself with anyone willing to hand him work during JT's time at the movies, be it as far up as Madonna or down the ladder with a random cast of forgettable characters on his mostly unnecessary Shock Value compilations. That hasn't phased Timberlake's faith in the man who helped him shatter the millennial pop standard, however, as seven years later, the two have teamed up once again in an attempt to revolutionize the world of radio on JT’s return, The 20 / 20 Experience -- Only this time, they find themselves in the peculiar position of catching up with the times.

It’s a classic case of when unreal expectations turn out to be just that. Tastemakers have propped Timberlake up as some sort of prodigal pop genius in the time since The 20 / 20 Experience was announced, based off arguably his only wortwhile contribution to the music world with FutureSex / LoveSounds, a robotically enhanced revision of dance pop that still holds up today and will likely outlast his newest effort. The 20 / 20 Experience is more human than its predecessor, with its soul far more visible from Timberlake’s R&B roots as a Memphis-bred stage crooner than an intergalactic innovator. And innovate it does not, instead opting to tread of-the-moment production tools and familiar style fixtures that fit Timberlake fine, but ultimately leave you wondering where the forward-thinking fashionista has been hiding out.

The album starts off by traveling back a few decades to the smooth sounds of '70s yacht pop where it's five-minutes-too-long soft opener "Pusher Love Girl" and breezy symphonic first single "Suit & Tie" cop R. Kelly's modernized soulful swagger of the era, dragging Jay-Z into it for no reason other than to bolster a big name guest appearance. It's luckily not at all indicative of what the remainder of the hour-plus listen features, but it's not to say that what follows should satisfy your confidence either. "Don't Hold the Wall" and "Tunnel Vision" are stereotypically Timbaland, where the producer inserts his *wicky-wicky* vocal stutterings around JT's short chorus lines over a safe route of close-lid percussion and marching anthems, cruelly for that matter up to seven minutes long even though any of these tracks could be summed up under the four minute mark. Overstaying their welcome almost sounds like an attempt to falsify the impression that "lengthier" = "artistic integrity," which might be true if the words and emotional value were a bit more convincing as well.

Unfortunately, the man who broke the mold on seductive danger and sinful scorn in past hits like "My Love" and "Cry Me a River" has of course settled down since we last heard from him, and as cliché as it may sound, marriage makes him sound -- Well, boring. Anyone old enough to remember how corny, transparent and cringe-worthy 'N Sync's lyrics could be might find it a tough sell hearing Timberlake singing out a love letter and throwing around phrases like "little mama," whether it be "Spaceship Coupe"'s invitation only being marginally better than a dick in a box ("Hop into my spaceship coupe / There's only room for two / Me and you...") or when reflecting a dated version of Beyoncé's "Halo" in his "Mirrors." I suppose this sucks more than anything for Jessica Biel.

In it's too few moments of unexampled redemption, he and Timbaland at least keep a competitive pace with where present-day R&B-pop is heading, as "Strawberry Bubblegum" and "Blue Ocean Floor" save a comfortable place for Timberlake amidst the rainbow drip spectrum of Frank Ocean, Miguel, the Weekend and How to Dress Well. More than anything, The 20 / 20 Experience's biggest setback is that it suffers from being stuck in hindsight creativity. Should it surprise you? Personally, I've never trusted pop music built by the major label machine enough to put my blind faith behind it, and the rise and fall of Justin Timberlake's genius is almost too predictable to get upset over. It's at the very least ready for 2013's iTunes chart-topping overplay (i.e. enjoyable today, forgotten in a year) and I guess that's as much as you can expect from today's pop superstars.

Justin Timberlake's The 20 / 20 Experience will be released March 19, 2013 on RCA Records.

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