It has been an eternity since “Sexyback”. So is it fair to expect Justin Timberlake’s new album The 20/20 Experience to sound like 2006? What we have here is a more mature, newly married, happy 32 year old who is celebrating how far he’s come. Yet he still has a childlike wonder about exploring when it comes to music. Once producer Timbaland was in tow, it would have been so easy to write “I’m Bringing SexyBackBack”. Now JT is working on classy.
“Suit and Tie” was the lead-off single here, and while it was a signal of things to come, it was not a signal of *all* things to come. The opener “Pusher Love Girl” opens with strings and sounds like an old love story movie score, before snapping its way into funky soul that reaches somewhere between Stax, Zapp and the Prince-osphere. Apparent right from the beginning is that most of these songs are lengthy. The main album has ten tracks. Most have an extended intro or ending with about a 2 minute rave up where the chorus and music flips and becomes a clever part two. He tried this on a few tracks on FutureSex/LoveSounds, and now he’s sticking with this. He mentioned in a recent interview that if Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can make long songs, why can’t he? On “Pusher Love Girl” it goes on just a tad long, but I see where he’s going here.
Now enter “Suit & Tie”. after properly dipping our ears in some soul, the throwback styles in this one are much more comfortable. The intro still feels a bit clunky with “I be on some suit and tie shit”. But after that part the song has a falsetto croon that I can’t shake from my head. One thing I love is that this song goes an entire chorus with the beat on the bridge before finaly coming back. There’s lots of little details here in the production that are impressive once they pop out.
“Don’t Hold The Wall” comes off a bit unusual with its bed of drums (tablas I think) and middle eastern singing under Timbaland’s now familiar background talk. This reminds me of how sometimes in the 90s a group like Boyz II Men or Bell Biv Devoe would take an uptempo song and strip the beat out and make a “quiet storm” version that usually had a strange half-speed beat. The detail in this one draws me in definitely. It sounds sleazy without actually being sleazy. The vamp ending here takes the strange and adds a few new layers but keeps the beat subtle.
Next is one that’s sure to be a hit, “Strawberry Bubblegum”. But I see this one being a bigger r&b hit than a pop hit. It’s sexy, romantic, has touches of the past and the future, and is a soulful track with all the right touches. This is definitely a bedroom jam. Then the part two ending has a guitar riff bit in the mix that sounds like it came from Rage Against the Machine. Odd but nice touch.
Then comes “Tunnel Vision”, which is probably my favorite so far. It incorporates a few things from past songs like “My Love” in the mix, but also a loop of a girl saying what sounds like “I know you lied!” and it gives the whole thing a creepy feel. Then there’s an organ that sounds like it could be in a 90s club track, but it’s here instead to completely different effect. But for anyone missing their fix of Timbaland’s “ficky ficky ficky”, it’s on this track. Then JT takes us on a ride in his “Spaceship Coupe”. This is a classic style soul ballad with some clever modern lyrics and a nice mix of fresh modern beats with old piano and strings in there. here he steps over into Robin Thicke’s territory proving he can hold his own. And then this is the song where we have a guitar solo giving it a strange and well… spacey vibe. “That Girl” steps into the wayback machine with a classic 70s slow jam feel with some well placed horns and funky guitar.
“Let The Groove In” definitely aims to wanna be startin’ something all night long. With the conga style drums that accent this one, it definitely has that party vibe, with some buried samples that I think are African. But the beat stays stripped down, which keeps this song fresh. There’s lots of tiny details in the distance, but the song never smacks you with a standard beat. Even when the part two section switches things up, the beat still doesn’t go to a four on the floor.
“Mirrors” is next and is one of the biggest standouts here. This one cherry picks details from some of his better tracks on the past two albums without being those songs. The beat is based on Justin’s beat-boxing, which I’ve always thought he mixed quite well on past tracks. Instead of the big power song being a sad one this time, it’s a reaffirmation of his love instead. This could make the track schmaltzy and cheap but it doesn’t. He pulls it off genuinely. After the single version cutoff point, this goes into an extended part also that feels like a cool down after the heated clap and singalong crescendo. He’s got this “here’s the short version, okay now here’s more if you want it” technique down. The final track “Blue Ocean Floor” is quite different and experimental for Justin. The track is based around backwards synth chords, a heartbeat-like pulse and sound effects. He creates a great sound painting of sorts here to mellow out the end of the experience with.
The Deluxe Edition (Target and iTunes) has two more songs tacked on. These were done specifically with producer Rob Knox. “Dress On” is good, has a head bobbing mid-paced groove, but is definitely second rate material to the album. “Body Count” on the other hand, which does not feature Ice-T in case you were wondering, is quite the party starter type jam. It recalls the acoustic touches that made “Like I Love You” work. Odd because while this features Timbaland (on vocals but not listed on production), The Neptunes produced “Like I Love You”. This song is definitely a keeper, but I can see where Justin might have felt like it doesn’t easily fit with the rest of the album. But I’m glad it was included because it was too good to waste.
And that’s 12 songs in about 80 minutes. That’s a long time to seduce your ears into paying attention these days. But with this type of smooth, I’m pretty sure Mr. Timberlake’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Welcome back JT.
Check out the brand new video “Mirrors”:
The first single and video “Suit & Tie”:
and some footage of “That Girl” live: