Timberlake breaks boundaries with ‘20/20’

Jordan Beck

Rumors about upcoming albums are a fact of life in the music community, but how often do artists have to deal with speculation about albums that they’ve already released?

That’s what happened with “The 20/20 Experience,” Justin Timberlake’s third solo LP, when Roots drummer ?uestlove claimed that a second volume of the album would be coming in November.

Timberlake confirmed the reports a day later and fans immediately went wild. But hype about volume 2 hasn’t been enough to distract from the disc Timberlake’s already put out, and for good reason: “20/20” is a cohesive, ornate and wonderfully weird record in and of itself.

Despite the fact that it was made by one of the biggest pop stars in the world, “20/20” isn’t exactly a traditional pop album. Sure, tracks like “Strawberry Bubblegum” and “Pusher Love Girl” are catchy enough, but they’re structured more like miniature symphonies than “verse-chorus-verse” radio fodder.

In an even stranger move for major-label pop music, seven of the album’s 10 tracks are over seven minutes long. Like it or not, it’s hard to deny that “20/20” is extremely ambitious.

But as so many failed ’70s concept albums have proven, ambition is worthless if it doesn’t have quality to back it up. Fortunately, those lengthy, out-there suites just happen to feature some of the finest songwriting, performances, and production in Timberlake’s career.

While JT’s vocals are uniformly effortless and wonderful, the album’s real MVP is Timbaland, who produced both “20/20” and “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” As a result, the two albums share many of the same basic sonic elements, such as sampled vocals, drum-machine beats, and overdubbed harmonies. However, it’s the way that Timbaland takes those sounds and turns them something more experimental and abstract than they were before that makes the LP worth listening to.

“Abstract” is a good way to describe this album’s highlights. For example, “Strawberry Bubblegum” opens with the crackle of vinyl and sampled strings, which soon dissolve into a breathtaking electronic ballad. After five minutes, the piece shifts gears entirely, turning into a classic R&B slow jam. It’s an odd song, to be sure. But like the rest of “The 20/20 Experience,” its quirks feel entirely natural once you get used to them.

For better or worse, “20/20” goes in every direction imaginable over the course of its 70 minutes. It’s almost always for better, but there are a few songs that end up getting lost in the shuffle. “That Girl,” the album’s shortest song at four minutes and 48 seconds, is a too-faithful Motown tribute that’s the least memorable moment here by far. Buoyant lead single “Suit & Tie” fares far better, thanks to its catchy melody and punchy brass lines, but its gleeful bounce is temporarily deflated by an uncharacteristically weak Jay-Z cameo.

While we’re nitpicking, the album’s lyrics are unmemorable at best and distracting at worst. JT’s declaration on “Spaceship Coupe” that “I’m trying to find the alien in you” is an example of the latter.

These really are just nitpicks, though; a few misshapen trees in the sprawling fairy-tale forest that is this record. Taken as a whole, “The 20/20 Experience” doesn’t disappoint – it’s bigger, wilder, and more daring than almost any pop album in recent memory. It’s not perfect, of course, but idiosyncratic, creatively-overstuffed statements of intent rarely are. Now, about that sequel…