Away from the “boy-band” machine, Justin Timberlake theoretically shouldn’t have so much gravitas. He’s not any more talented than your average, well-coached teen-pop star.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a pop album that takes itself more seriously than “The 20/20 Experience.” Most tracks are overextended to last seven or eight minutes.
“Pusher Love Girl” begins with the kind of stringed fanfare you’d expect to hear on the red carpet at an awards show, then morphs into a faux Michael Jackson attempt. Sadly, a lot of JT’s fans don’t remember how amazing Jackson was at his peak. He also had better material.
“Thriller” and “Bad” were huge albums as much for their songs as for Jackson’s showmanship.
When Timberlake sings “Pusher love/Be my drug/Hook me up” it is very calculated. He still somehow lives in a “Tiger Beat” bubble. He’s better than Bieber but not by much. His songs are still full of lame teen-pop come-ons. The added drug reference is meant to give him “edge.” He is supposed to be the bad boy with the pseudo-’50s smile and the charm to match. But, hey, he’s got a weakness for love, which is just like a drug. That comparison was tired when Roxy Music used it back in 1975. It’s past even being a dead horse by now.
“Suit and Tie” is a catchy single, but all its charms are undercut by its ridiculous intro in which he sings “I be on my suit and tie s___.” The track is backed by a ping-ponging beat, echoing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
Timberlake’s music seems secondhand. He wants to be some sort of supper-club soul man. His “Suit & Tie” shtick not only brings to mind many of the classic Motown artists who performed in suits but also Raphael Saadiq’s “The Way I See It” image from 2008, thus turning what could’ve been a clever stylistic choice into a recycled gimmick.
“Don’t Hold the Wall” finds producer Timbaland backing Timberlake with a pseudo-Indian beat. The producer chants, “Dance … Don’t hold the wall” in a voice that sounds as if it is coming through a broken phone receiver. The song contains the lyrics “I’m the best ever,” which is preceded by a cocky chuckle just off the mic. Brashness can be an asset, but lack of humility can be dangerous. In any case, this sparse, hand-clap jam doesn’t warrant its seven-minute length, even with its marginally interesting breakdown section.
“Strawberry Bubblegum” begins with a deep, Barry White-esque voice saying, “Hey… pretty lady…” while Timberlake sings “This goes out to you!” Such a move seems engineered to make gullible teen girls in the audience scream. The dusty string loop and the added record scratchiness on the track fit the faux-vintage vibe that coats this record. With its ethereal, soft tone, the track wants to be Jackson’s “Butterflies” but lacks that song’s genuinely eerie and weirdly beautiful sense of longing. Once again, Timberlake’s amateurish lyrics don’t do him any favors. He tries very hard by adding a retro-sounding organ solo, but such retro-touches feel about as genuine as a hipster trying on a different kind of hat.
Timbaland’s beat on “Tunnel Vision” is strikingly cool. It should’ve been used on a better track. While Timbaland may repeat himself, he is working off a blueprint he essentially created, while working off a series of tired “loverman” clichés.
“I got that tunnel vision for you,” he coos. In other words, he’s zooming in on your love, girl, and there’s a quiet storm headed your way!
“Spaceship Coupe” begins with another faux dedication. We get it. You wrote these songs for all the “ladies” within earshot. “I just want to fly away with you,” he sings. “I don’t want to alienate. I’m trying to find the alien in you.” This song is full of more cheesy sexual space metaphors than the humorist in me can handle. To top it off, it has the kind of lite-radio rock guitar solo not heard this side of 1987. He should have outgrown ridiculous songs like this long ago. He should be leaving that kind of thing to Robin Thicke.
“That Girl” is a somewhat dull, standard love-croon. It’s the kind of track Prince, Maxwell and an early-career Van Hunt could have done with their eyes closed.
“Let the Groove Get In” can be covered with a refrain of “Ma ma se/Ma ma sa/Ma ma ma coo sa!” The chanted title of this song aims to be “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” But it’s a vague sketch at best. Jackson understood the value of a change-up. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” was a constantly moving masterpiece. Here, more often than not, Justin feels like a singer standing still … or coasting at best.
“Mirrors” is crafted for pop radio. It’s the kind of ballad dozens of singers have attempted. Again, it is way too long and it sounds a bit like a sad R&B answer to Natalie Imbruglia’s 1998 hit, “Torn.”
With its backward Four Tet-esque backdrop, “Blue Ocean Floor” is rather hypnotic. Artistically speaking, this is the best song on the record. Not only does it find Timbaland thinking outside of the box, but it also seems to be Timberlake’s least self-aware performance.
Overall, though, this is a surprisingly uninspired collection. Timberlake wants to be a legend. He needs to become more of an innovator and less of a cultural regurgitator. For now, he is merely a pop imitator with too much flash and not enough flavor.