Justin Timberlake's third album, The 20/20 Experience, would be a disappointment were we not adequately prepared to be underwhelmed. This is the kind of album whose mellow, nothing-more-than-nice first single is puzzling until you hear the rest of the album and realize that it's the most commercial pop on a collection whose musical m.o. is to be nothing more than nice. "Suit & Tie," at least, has a sense of spunk, which is more than can be said for most of 20/20. The album sounds like a conscious attempt at musical maturity that is never quite earned or fully realized.
With the world unaware that Timberlake had taken himself off musical hiatus and recorded a full album (his first since 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds), the man prematurely considered a legend by critics and audiences alike announced on YouTube that he was "ready" in January. A few days later that underwhelming single dropped. And then, some dull performances. If the initial marketing seemed weirdly subdued, a way of making molehills out of JT's momentous return to pop music, The 20/20 Experience does everything to compensate for that. Eight out of the album's ten tracks stretch longer than six minutes. More often than not, they extend via intros (the album opens with an orchestral overture that's hilarious in grandiosity) and codas. It's not unlike the structure of some FutureSex tracks, except it happens almost every time here.
"When we were making the record I said, 'If Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can do 10-minute songs and Queen can do 10-minute songs then why can't we?' We'll figure out the radio edits later," Timberlake recently said on British radio. But that statement is ridiculous beyond its arrogance. There is nothing to figure out – the nut of each of these songs is apparent, and the sonic fat that surrounds them is practically falling off the bone.
Actually, "nut" is putting it too kindly. These groove-based, low-key and mostly static songs sit like blanched lettuce – when they inevitably change up four or five minutes in with slight variations, emphasized rhythms, a looser sense of ad-libbing, Timberlake and his trusty producer Timbaland are essentially asking us, "Now would you like to try some steamed lettuce?" (It is clearer than ever, by the way, that Timbaland is entirely sapped of innovation and condemning himself to repetition, wacky shouty samples and weird beat-boxed rhythms and skittering beats and all.) Only the melodically vibrant "Strawberry Bubblegum" really deserves its coda as it turns toe from a Casio-bloopy, trappy hunk of atmosphere haunted by occasional strings to a sunny ode with Stevie-aping keyboards and a boogie bass line. At the worst, the coda justifies the song: Timbaland revisits the bhangra territory he did over 10 years ago with Missy's "Get Ur Freak On" in "Don't Hold the Wall," which commands its listeners to "Dance!" while merely simmering and without offering so much as a tangible bass line till about four and a half minutes in. These songs are too insignificant for suites.
Though generally pleasant (with the exception of the inert album closer "Blue Ocean Floor," which doesn't even fake movement with a forced outro), there is a palpable pop resistance on 20/20 – for the most part, trends of the day are eschewed for a heightened sense of soul. Horns abound, strings punctuate, songs trot, Timberlake croons. His voice sounds more elastic than ever, his falsetto organic and effortless, but it lacks a depth of life behind it. He just breezes through, performing like he's been trained to do, making his way through the songs with agility and absolutely no sense of reflection. His lyrics remain lovey and superficial without even a sense of a specific object of desire. It's saying very little to point out that the deepest song is the second single "Mirrors" ("It's like you're my mirror / My mirror staring back at me / I couldn't get any bigger / With anyone else beside me And now it's clear as this promise / That we're making / Two reflections into one…"). At worst, Timberlake comes off as an off-brand R. Kelly who wandered into Prince's recording studio: "Spaceship Coupe" is driven by a plunking piano and an electrocuted bass line. It boasts a guitar solo and these lines: "Now everybody knows that you're from outer space / But honey I just wanna turn out this space with you / So drive me to your galaxy where I could play / That milky way / And sugar I'll take my time and show you the backseat view."
There's barely a sense of joy on this album – if you didn't know already that Timberlake married Jessica Biel last year, the album certainly wouldn't clue you in. That's fine, not every performer needs to be confessional, but it makes 20/20's very conscious move to maturity seem more suspect. Timberlake's acting and general persona have overtaken his public profile (see how little time recent interviews supporting this album spend on the actual music). Here he is merely playing a smooth, soulful singer. Grown and sexy is but another role, and it's barely deeper than his one in a shitty romcom like Friends With Benefits.
It only becomes clearer over time how perfect "Suit & Tie" was to introduce this project. The 20/20 Experience is all dressed up, and it goes nowhere.