Sunday, March 31, 2013
Ever since he went solo and teamed up with hip/hop soul visionary Timbaland in 2002, Justin Timberlake has been the widely-accepted standard for white soul. His entreating debut Justified was a satisfying first glimpse at how this planned transition could work and did produce one of the decade’s greatest songs (Cry Me A River). The album, crucially, didn’t fall away in structure if one took that masterpiece out of consideration, owing much to Timbaland’s genius for groove utility. Sure enough then, when Future Sex/ Love Sounds dropped four years later, Timberlake became the hottest piece of white meat in the music industry. It remains a titillating piece of pop candy, full of treats and trademark Timbaland synths and experimental grooves. Coupled with his handling of Nelly Furtado, it remains Timbaland’s last great year as a music producer.
This is an important point to make because, as you’ve become to realize, the state of Justin Timberlake’s music is dependent wholly on what Timbaland brings to the studio and that hasn’t been much in the past seven years. In that long barren stretch we’ve seen Timbaland’s vain attempt of his own career flop and his partner Missy Elliott stop updating Twitter with news of her next LP. Timberlake took to movies, resurrected Myspace and got married to Jessica Biel. He also turned thirty and, more damningly, got ‘respectable’ in the eyes of the pop music-buying market.
Fans expecting The 20/20 Experience to be a continuation of Justin bringing sexy back will be in for a disappointing listen however for all the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph. It is also because the Timberlake/Timbaland pop model has always been part daring experiment and part conformism. Timbaland is an auteur of the highest rank but he’s always wanted to be successful in crossing-over to non-black audiences. Timberlake has sought credibility with critics and black audiences while maintaining his immense appeal to everyone else. If Justified helped Timbaland get a toe-hold into the young white music buyers market, then Future Sex/ Love Sounds was Timberlake’s passport to urban black hipness.
The 20/20 Experience is a totally different phase of their relationship, the kind of equal-needs project that both are looking to use to re-establish their brand. Both men satisfy themselves in weird ways on the album but the concept-model is set from the opening song, Pusher Love Girl, an arcane, over-long idea. Like most songs here, Timberlake puts in a vocally-pleasing effort only for Timbaland to pitch his still-formidable beats long after Justin has ended his contribution. This makes for unchallenging pop music, the type of safe idea that isn’t terrible but far from exceptional. Pusher Love Girl stretches beyond seven minutes but skip the first six to get to the sublime last part, the part where both artists are actively engaged in it instead of respectfully avoiding each other’s flow. Suit & Tie fits more properly into Justin’s new mature approach to pop, marinated nicely with jazzy beats until Jay Z turns up to torpedo it.
It is the next two tracks however that reveal to us that Timbaland isn’t yet back to his peak as a producer. Don’t Hold The Wall sure sounds like a hit but this is all recyclable stuff---dice-rolling beats, Indian sitars—including his own brief vocal work. Timberlake sounds out of synch with the vision here but it’s all pretty jumbled and, at seven minutes, in dire need of editing. Strawberry Bubblegum sounds like 1970s black exploitation and not in a good way. When not prepped up by the right Timbaland beat, Justin’s vocal work and lyrics come off unflattering and here is the weakest point of this baffling album.
Things rebound temporarily with the brilliant Tunnel Vision, a track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Future Sex/ Love Sounds. It’s the first instance on the entire album where Justin’s sex appeal resurrects itself from all the attempts to sanitize it. Timbaland responds by throwing the kitchen sink at it, creating lovely havoc in the background. The album never lives up to its dizzying heights after that though Mirrors comes damn close.
Most disturbing of the rest is Spaceship Coupe as it pretentiously borrows from Ciara’s excellent Promise, a track ironically recorded the same year as Future Sex/ Love Sounds. This is the first time I can openly spot Timbaland copying from another music producer but—along with Timberlake’s terrible stint as lyricist—it confirms that this is an unsuccessful career resurrection for both men. The 20/20 Experience, in spite of getting better overall reviews thus far, cannot compare favorably to his previous two solo albums. Though critics are willing it to be great, there are only three note-worthy pop tracks here and they alone don’t make it a great album. As Bill Sampson tells Eve when she openly solicits him in the brilliant 1950 film All About Eve, “Just score it as an incomplete forward pass.”