Suspension of disbelief is important. The only way to enjoy any work of fiction — presumed or otherwise — is to shut off your brain, ignore the pesky facts (Rick Ross was a corrections officer, the “Real Housewives” probably don’t have that many dinner parties) and just go with it. I only mention that now because, last year, Justin Timberlake got married , and whether or not you accept that fact will largely determine how you feel about his new The 20/20 Experience album.
Why? Well, if you choose to believe that the majority of its 70 minutes are inspired by his wife, actress Jessica Biel, then two things immediately spring to mind: One, she must be exhausted, and two, Justin really enjoys being married (this certainly explains that People magazine cover ).
On the extended outro to album-opener “Pusher Love Girl,” he compares his bride to heroin, cocaine, plum wine, MDMA and nicotine. He spends the entirety of “Strawberry Bubblegum” singing about her various attributes (and “flavor”). He proclaims he’s got “Tunnel Vision” for her, spends the last third of “Mirrors” chanting “You are/the love of my life,” and lets it be known in the first verse of “Spaceship Coupe” that “I wrote this song for you.” And then there’s “That Girl,” his self-confessed effort to put his love “on wax.” Every crooned invite to dance and each pant, gasp or promised whirl around the world seems to be directed at her, which certainly makes for a fairytale romance, but also begs for a night in. A girl’s got to catch up on her Netflix sometime, dude.
Of course, if you ignore the ring on his finger, well then, JT is still in prime loverman form, and rather than exist as some overstuffed ode to his betrothed, 20/20 Experience cooks as a complex, utterly-cool celebration of bachelorhood and all its excesses. Witness the serpentine slither of “Don’t Hold The Wall,” or the roiling, rapacious “Let The Groove In,” which are designed solely to lure the ladies to the dancefloor. There is no shortage of stony, six a.m. sonics, or overly sexualized come-ons, and Timberlake seems to be having a blast palling around with Timbaland and Jay-Z. It all culminates with the album-closing “Blue Ocean Floor,” which unspools over a rewinding bit of tape and seems to be the only moment when Timberlake even remotely expresses regret for any of his actions.
It occurs to me that the truth probably lies somewhere in-between those two perceptions, that perhaps The 20/20 Experience is just an album … even if it does come after a near seven-year hiatus from music. And in that regard, it is a tremendous triumph, an artfully anachronistic effort from Timberlake that eschews just about every preconceived notion of popular music in 2013 — radio-friendly running times, a dearth of actual instrumentation, etc — and confidently carves out its own niche. It’s part Frank Sinatra, part Frank Ocean, and it plays out gradually, languidly, as if JT and Timbaland never want the party to end. It is perhaps too long? Sure. Will it mystify a portion of his fanbase? Undoubtedly. But you get the feeling Timberlake could care less … he’s moved on to the artistry phase of his career, after all.
And, ultimately, the “artistry” will probably be what The 20/20 Experience is remembered for. Producer Timbaland weaves his signature percussive clicks (and vocal ticks) into every nook and cranny, synthesizers bubble and percolate, and live instruments peak through in key moments. The way the album pairs the organic with the synthetic is truly a marvel to behold, fusing the DNA of the two and creating something entirely new. Timberlake flexes his lithe falsetto, but also gets down and dirty, grinding out grunts and staggered breaths like a true master. This is an album indebted to the past, but also one that leans forward … and it does so effortlessly, which, given its extended length, is truly saying something.
Then again, one can’t ignore just how hard JT has worked at creating the singular world in which 20/20 exists. You see it in the omnipresent Tom Ford tux, the cracking big band, the cool clouds of smoke that percolate through his music videos . He seems determined to play the role of the eternal bachelor, which flies in the face of everything we know about him today. And perhaps that’s why I can’t quite wrap my head around the entirely of The 20/20 Experience … you can criticize its scope or lack of signature hooks, but that seems beside the point. It is a really solid, perfectly crafted, proudly mature effort, yet, to me, there’s also an air of inauthenticity to it all, one that arises from the odd juxtaposition of “JT the Husband” with “JT the Single Man.” That might not be fair, but, hey, you can’t have it both ways. No matter how long your album is.
What do you think of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience? Let us know in the comments below.