One of the hallmarks of the American music industry is that artists are allowed the opportunity to advance from their early years to more mature, occasionally solo efforts. For some artists, like Britney and LiLo, the road to maturity is fraught with missteps and public meltdowns. For others, like most of the members of the Backstreet Boys, it means fading into relative obscurity. There is one artist, however, who has managed to stay above the fray: Justin Timberlake. He survived his ramen-haired ‘N SYNC days to launch a wildly successful solo career, from his debut album, Justified, in 2002 to his latest musical creation, The 20/20 Experience.
However, after one of the longer hiatuses in recent musical memory, The 20/20 Experience is facing scrutiny to see if Justin still has the musical star power and momentum that he had in 2006 when he dropped the fantastic FutureSex/LoveSounds. College students are probably his most enduring fan base, or at least the ones who have been around the longest. ‘N SYNC was huge in our early elementary years — years that were musically formative for many — and his solo albums came out during our late middle and early high school years, when his brand of super slick, attractive male pop star was the norm and Justin was the best at what he did.
All things considered, The 20/20 Experience is a very accurate name for this album. It has been designed, honed and crafted by Timberlake and his producers to create a fully immersive musical experience. One of the side effects of this, however, has been that the individual tracks, and the album as a whole, are remarkably long.
The album’s second single, “Mirrors,” is a fairly accurate representation of the album as a whole. It’s a catchy track with Justin’s smooth vocals highlighted by Timbaland’s strong beats. The musical love child of “Cry Me a River” and “What Goes Around,” the track is a touching dedication to his wife, Jessica Biel, and the positive role she has played in building his life and career. It is also over 8 minutes long.
Each track has its own unique brand of sex appeal, but none more so than “Don’t Hold the Wall.” Beyond the implicit seduction taking place through the song’s lyrics — “Take you to the light / It’s dark in the back / You started moving / You put an arch in your back / Closer to me, closer to me / Sippin’your drink / And you’re getting closer to me” — there are a lot of interesting things going on musically. Timberlake’s vocals are just as on point here as in the rest of the album, but Timbaland’s strong production skills steal the spotlight, with a strong tribal drumbeat and vocal samples creating a rich and complex backdrop for JT’s magic.
The one downside to this album is the lengths of the songs. Despite the great quality of the music, they are hard songs to launch as successful radio singles without serious trimming and editing, but this likely won’t hurt the album. Justin’s name and star factor still have built up an incredible amount of hype around this album, and it is a great collection to listen to as a whole — even if the hour-and-10-minute runtime is a little long.
While FutureSex/LoveSounds was about carving out a niche for himself in the crowded pop star market, The 20/20 Experience is about elevating JT beyond that niche with music infused with retro glamour and a slick, well-produced message of elegance and success.
The album’s first single, “Suit & Tie,” was released in late 2012 and immediately jumped to the iTunes Top 10. Other critics have pointed out that with the highly public economic downturn and the monetary success of tracks like “Thrift Shop” that praise a more approachable lifestyle, listeners won’t be able to relate to JT’s new high-end focus and won’t purchase the album. The successful end product of The 20/20 Experience, however, should silence the doubters and create an entirely new generation of devoted Timber-lovers.