Justin Timberlake has returned. He’s returned and returned for the past two months, continuously and loudly and everywhere you look. He first returned in January, with a showily serious black-and-white promo clip in which nothing much happens but Timberlake monologuing, pacing down unidentified halls like Megyn Kelly on election night, and returning. He returned at the Grammys; arguably his return was the Grammys. He returned to make merry on every late-night TV show with enough cachet to make up for the mugging. He even released music: two singles nominally about menswear and marriage but mostly about the fact that Justin Timberlake has returned. It’s the sort of coronation reserved for megastars (and whose absence made 2012 a dull year for pop), too big to fail or to argue with. Of course Justin Timberlake is back. Where isn’t the evidence?
“The album sounds great, or at least expensive. Even the duds are lavish with sophisticated ignorance — he writes his come-ons in cursive.”
The 20/20 Experience promo copy waxes even more grandiose; not only is Timberlake back, but he’s “reunited with his first love,” music — something that’s bound to have Veronica Finn a little bemused. (Expected somebody else? Just wait.) It’s a marvel of spin. Presumably, Timberlake and music have been separated for quite some time — since the Bush years, marvels The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica — until this hard-fought, long-sought re-consummation: a wonderful story in every aspect except its veracity. Even if you believe Timberlake is fulfilling his muse and not his record contract, and even though his professional dilettantism is now infamous (golfing, associating himself with characters named Boo-Boo Bear and Le Coq, paying money for MySpace), he never really disappeared from the music world. FutureSex/LoveSounds came out in 2006 but produced hits for a full year; even what that was done, Timberlake remained a constant, if uneven, radio presence on tracks ranging from solid (Ciara’s “Love Sex Magic,” Grammy-nominated) to slightly inadvisable in retrospect (Madonna’s MDNA gateway “4 Minutes,” T.I.’s now-ironic “Dead and Gone”) to excruciating (Timbaland’s “Carry Out.”) Add to this enough work with The Lonely Island to make Timberlake an honorary member (-in-a-box), and more would-be proteges than he wants you to recall — see Memphis R&B neophytes FreeSol or Dutch YouTube ingenue Esmee Denters , whose JT-featuring “Love Dealer” sounds suspiciously like raw material for The 20/20 Experience’s “Pusher Love Girl” — and it all looks a bit different than how he’s telling it. Why wouldn’t it? Better to go out on top — or at least convince people you did — than waste away in the workaday. And a Justin Timberlake comeback looks much more enticing if you remember him leaving off at “Cry Me a River.”
It’s better marketing, in other words. As Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua writes, Timberlake’s positioning himself as a luxury brand — a musician who’s above the EDM grind of the charts, less party rock than art dealer chic. There’s really nowhere else for him to go. He’s graduated from the boy band, shed the ramen hair, de-guilted his pleasures — but then what? Timberlake’s Celebrity sound’s been knocked off and trickled down the market in a Miranda Priestly nightmare spiral to the Jesse McCartneys and Justin Biebers and other up-and-comers; it’s no good anymore for luxury. Justified’s attempt to make him the next Michael Jackson never quite took (as such attempts generally don’t), and FutureSex/LoveSounds still holds up but no longer sounds futuristic; it’s like one of those old sci-fi films where the 2000s are an endless hovercraft-and-laser show.
What’s left, then, is upscale soul. Timberlake’s on his bourgeoisified shit: less Prince than cotillion, more Love Letter than Black Panties. The album’s replete with it: samples from the back of the crates — the ones that require a “master degree in soul-ology” to unearth, marveled ?uestlove, who would know; codas and interludes on every song like flying buttresses; enough string intros to make Lana Del Rey swoon; and more than enough, in general, of every song. It’s not that the album itself is too long — though it isn’t short — just that each individual track goes on at least two minutes more than it should, for the sake of going on two extra minutes. They’re so long you begin to imagine ways they could be even longer, like Timberlake vamping further on “Pusher Love Girl” (“my heroin, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA”) through the entire federal drug slang list, or stretching the guitar solo in “Spaceship Coupe” to supercadenza lengths like Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera, or lingering even longer on languid centerpiece “Mirrors.” It’s runtime solely as conspicuous consumption — and as rockist cred; it’s telling that Timberlake cited as inspirations classic-rock behemoths by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Queen instead of something like Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids.” Or that to introduce the self-consciously retro “That Girl,” he stages himself as the up-and-coming bandleader of “JT and the Tennessee Kids” — packing more fake authenticity into five words than a barrel of Mumfords. But at least JT and Timbo commit to this mess. The album sounds great, or at least expensive. Even the duds are lavish with sophisticated ignorance — he writes his come-ons in cursive. In many ways, in fact, The 20/20 Experience is like Watch the Throne, or at least the imaginary version of Watch the Throne that wasn’t about race and wealth but merely being very, very wealthy. Timberlake even makes Jay-Z his plus-one for a perfunctory appearance on single “Suit & Tie.” (As for the other half of the Throne, he was neither present nor impressed: “Much love for Jay, but I ain’t fucking with no ‘Suit & Tie’!” As usual, he wasn’t wrong.)
As for the other other half of the Throne, there’s more than a little of Beyonce’s 4 here in how Timberlake rebuffs radio trends for mature soul. But there’s one major difference. Where 4 accumulated its biographical subtext gradually with Blue Ivy’s birth, like so many layers of swaddling clothes, The 20/20 Experience wants you to accept it up front. The album presents itself as a love letter to Timberlake’s new wife Jessica Biel, which is the sort of extramusical frisson that can make good albums timeless — but for that to happen, you need a timeless pairing. The thing nobody is saying — the real rot in the heart of The 20/20 Experience, with apologies to Steven Hyden– is that as celebrity couples go, Timberlake and Biel are rather inert. They’re hardly the dream team of Timberlake and Britney Spears, or Beyonce and Jay-Z; they’re hardly even recognizable. (Are you sure you’re not mistaking her for Jessica Alba?) It’s not that they’re obligated to provide pageantry — merely that The 20/20 Experience is all pageantry and demands the same in return, which lends a certain hollowness to the romance, like maybe Timberlake’s serenading a cipher. This works — though maybe not as intended — when the songs are ambiguous, like cheating narrative “Don’t Hold the Wall” or “Tunnel Vision,” the most modern, moody thing here: love as Hitchcockian film, claustrophobic and jittery, interrupted constantly by a “I know you like it” drop snippetized to sound like “I know you lie.” But the straightforward love songs come off blank, even insincere: it’s easy to wonder how she really feels about all this. (Like a sullen bride in a first-act Bollywood wedding, perhaps; of the tricks Timbo’s bringing back, primary among them is his tired habit of sampling or “sampling” Indian or Middle Eastern sounds to suggest danger. Better that, I suppose, than the unfortunate “Let the Groove Get In,” built on a sample from Burkina Faso and labeled in the promo blurb as “Latin beats.” Which says everything.)
The lyrics don’t help. Timberlake isn’t a great lyricist (c.f. “Hi, my name is Bob, and I work at my job”), but he’s consistent in one thing: love songs traditional to the point of being cheesy. Even his best, “My Love,” promises enough long walks on the beach, symphonies and countryside sojourns to come off almost insincere, and so it goes with The 20/20 Experience. Most of what’s supposedly romantic is either negging (“I don’t know why, girl, but I’m feeling close to you. Maybe it’s the ocean view”; “so thick, now I know why they call it a fatty”), bad pickup lines (including, yes, “running through my mind all day”), romcom clichés (“let’s ride off into the sunset together”), bizarrely narcissistic (the entire conceit of “Mirrors”), better directed at the audience (a lot, actually, but “Strawberry Bubblegum”’s “let me elevate your appetite” comes to mind) or, above all, vaguely patronizing. On “That Girl” she’s a “little daisy” who needs to ask her father’s permission; on “Strawberry Bubblegum” she’s a Lolita analogue who catches JT’s eye by smacking her gum. “Spaceship Coupe” reverberates with supposedly sexual coos that resemble nothing more than that stock-sound baby cry from Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” pitched up; even this wouldn’t be that much more infantilizing.
It’s all bound to work on someone, though; Timberlake’s that smooth, as is his falsetto and the surroundings they’re in. You’d expect no less from a professional — as he says himself, on “Strawberry Bubblegum,” marveling about how he and his beloved “[make] love like professionals.” At first blush it’s just another poorly thought-out metaphor (elsewhere: a spaceship coupe with the top down would kill you; calling strawberry an original flavor would get you fired from marketing; making innuendo out of “blueberry lollipop” would make you Doctor Manhattan). But maybe it’s more apt than Timberlake realizes.