Spotlight: Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience

Justin Timberlake has been treading a very deliberate artistic path for many years now. It’s been a subtle evolution, built piece-by-piece by a burning desire to make pop music his way, far removed from the stifling constraints and expectations the genre is known for. Even towards the end of his boy-band days with N-Sync, Timberlake demanded respect as a musician, and whilst he arguably didn’t get it until half a decade later in 2006, when he released the acclaimed FutureSex/Lovesounds, it was clearly something he had been pursuing with unwavering fervor for his entire career. Off the back of that record, he was a big enough name to do what he wanted, when he wanted. Indeed, The 20/20 Experience is an album he didn’t have to make at all, and it shows.

justin_timberlake_20_20_reviewGleaning influences from the past half a century of music, Timberlake moves in any and all directions, transitioning from fast-paced jungle rhythms (‘Don’t Hold The Wall, ‘Let The Groove In’) to soulful slow-jams (‘Pusher Love Girl’, ‘That Girl’) to rousing ballads (‘Mirrors’) with impressive focus. The songs are all lengthy yet catchy, intricate yet accessible and carry an almost tangible air of self-importance, broken up with periods of prolonged instrumentation and sample use. It’s sprawling and progressive in almost every facet, with tracks feeling like fully expressed thoughts as opposed to just curtailed snapshots. With close friend Timbaland handling production, a supremely rich pallet of sounds is explored, with nothing being held back on the account of it being just ‘pop music’. In his own words, ‘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.’

Indeed, the job that Timbaland does here cannot be understated. From the delightful violin and percussion-led opener ‘Pusher Love Girl’, to the brilliantly sorrowful closer ‘Blue Ocean Floor’, the music always feels like the natural extension of Timberlake’s tuneful vocals. Layers upon layers of guitar licks, snare rattles, synthesizer sweeps and horn melodies work seamlessly on each track, and represent a true return to form for the Virginia producer. No two beats ever sound the same, and you can really tell that he, like Timberlake, relishes in the ability to fully express himself through the music without restrictive frameworks shackling his vision.

Beneath all this though, is romance. Whilst Timberlake may have made it a point to challenge traditional pop conventions in song structure, The 20/20 Experience is thematically no different to most pop music. Love, sex, and self-reflection dominate the conceptual map, sometimes glazed over by Timberlake’s trademark playfulness, other times stripped down to a more basic, visceral level than perhaps we’re used to. The highlight is undoubtedly ‘Blue Ocean Floor’, notable for its slow, hazy soundscape and sad, subdued vocal performance — ‘If my red eyes don’t see you anymore / And I can’t hear you through the white noise / Just send your heartbeat I’ll go to the blue ocean floor / Where they find us no more’. It’s a particularly hard-hitting track, befitting to the album’s entire philosophy despite being vastly different in style. It’s almost an archetype ‘anti-pop’ song.

With a staggering 70 minute run time and myriad of styles and influences, this is no ordinary pop album, nor was it intended to be. Just one track falls below five minutes, and none come even close to the radio-friendly standard of three minutes. However, this conspicuous lack of consideration to an outlet that was instrumental in the success of Timberlake’s early career isn’t altogether that surprising — The 20/20 Experience is an album in the true sense of the word, not a watered-down vehicle for three or four particularly catchy singles. It’s self-indulgent at times, but that’s the point. Free from having to answer to anyone, Timberlake has set out to show that pop music can do more, and on the evidence he puts forward here, he’s right.

Isaac Powell
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Isaac Powell

Isaac is Editor-in-Chief of Noted, and prefers his music loud and steaks rare. Lives and writes in Nottingham, England.
Isaac Powell
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