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Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

I saw him in concert once. It was 2007, and I was struck by 2 things. MAN this guy makes me think of Michael Jackson. And OH MY GOD  I have never experienced a more irritating crowd experience. It's prudent to note that whilst *NSYNC were a global mega-force, the world has only been delivered 2 Timberlake solo LPs in 11 years before this.  Those 2 records have sold 17 million copies worldwide, and ensured a level of fame that had women at my previously mentioned concert so delerious with the experience of him being within 200 metres of them they were in danger of permanently losing their sanity (dignity already out the window..)

Of course whilst JT is one of the least prolific pop icons ever he has never left the public eye, becoming a global megastar on the back of some excellent film work and proving his dexterity of character via some equally brilliant work on SNL. Fans of his music have been despairing, however, and the news of a new solo album must've been like heroin in the veins of a junkie for them. For me, personally, I was more than excited. Whilst pop music teeters dangerously close to losing all credibility, there have been precious few artists recently who have displayed the power to tilt the scales back. Timberlake possesses this power.

This power stems from not only an accomplished and celebrated vocal ability, but decades spent honing his pop craft. His past is well documented, and it transferred brilliantly in to solo success the way others, especially his *NSYNC group mates, can only dream of and salivate at. Justified was a conservative yet well executed pop album, propelled in to contemporary blood lines via the shrewd beat-making of The Neptunes. It ruffled few feathers, and spawned one of the best songs of the decade, Cry Me A River. Then came FutureSex/LoveSounds, a dramatic left turn orchestrated by JT and Timbaland that shot both artists in to the pop stratosphere and created a legacy that is underestimated by some. The insane funked out, electro grooves these two constructed together proved to be years ahead of its time, and when coupled with the more straightforward hip hop intelligence Timbaland displayed to fill the album out, it was the consumate modern pop record.

Little wonder then that it's taken JT 6 and a half years to attempt a follow up. In the world of pop music this is a lifetime, and the landscape has changed dramatically. EDM, rave-pop, synth mush, whatever label you choose, now roams the airwaves. Timbaland, since brilliantly reinventing Nelly Furtado and spending the next few years producing everyone from Duran Duran to Kanye West, has fallen in to obscurity on the back of the failure of his own record Shock Value II, and now only pops up in the news when people ask if Jay-Z is in the studio or not. The stage is then perfectly set for the king of modern pop to earn his crown, and an old-timer who helped shape some of the greatest records of the previous decade to rise once again. The 20/20 Experience.

Pusher Love Girl sets a tone that is adhered to for much of the record. It's a slow moving 70s guitar groove, that blossoms nicely a few times throughout with the help of a devoted string section and that rising falsetto of JT. With the opening track, we're invited in to this neo-soul ratpack environment that the two have created. A smokey black and white room, slicked back hair, the smoothest Saturday night club on the corner. Jay-Z and 50 Cent may have done it before, but the simplistic metaphor of love as a tangible drug is tackled brilliantly here by JT, lines like 'I'm hopped up on it, it won't go away / Now I can't wait 'til I get you home and get you in my veins' will cut you regardless of which side of the metaphor you fall on. It also signals intentions. Whilst FutureSex/Love Sounds was a more confident, defiant, player-esque Timberlake, this song introduces a much softer personality.

A question must be posed at this point. Is this record chic, or slick? Is it a fashionable, contemporary take on the current musical landscape, highlighting that no matter how far we may have evolved sonically, R&B pop roots can always be traced back to the bloodlines of Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, The Commodores, 70s funk and soul music? Or is this a shrewd marketing observation, using mega-star status as a means to trot out a tried and tested formula and dress it up as cutting edge and revolutionary?

The album certainly doesn't jump off the wall at you. Songs such as Strawberry Bubblegum and Spaceship Coupe wallow in a yawn-inducing lull, as JT wisps away with lines like 'Cause she's just like nothing / That I ever seen before / Baby please dont change nothing / Because your flavours so original' and 'Hop into my spaceship coupe / There's only room for two / Me and you'. That we're treated to such extended versions of this lack of lyrical prowess is actually somewhat of a crime. Timbaland's production is pedestrian. Strawberry Bubblegum starts promisingly, recalling a Clams Casino or even The Weeknd esque lo-fi groove, but without something more dynamic on top of it the whole thing just fizzles in to nothing by the time the jazz piano riff kicks in at 5 minutes. Timberlake repeating strawberry bubblegum over and over just adds to the exacerbation, the song should've been over 3 minutes previously.

The blame for this rests equally with Timbaland and Timberlake. The sheer sappiness of JT's lyrics takes all the bite out of even the meekest of attempts at dynamicism by Timbaland. Even when the intention is to craft an epic slow moving ballad, such as on Blue Ocean Floor, with JT sleepily pouring lines like 'Frequencies so low / Heart on a string / A string that only plays solos' the effect is completely lost. The opening to That Girl invites a comparison to Southern Blues music of the 70s and 80s, and Timbaland produces a skittery track with a well sorted horn and guitar section that creates an uncluttered canvas for JT to slather on some charisma but he baulks again at the opportunity. Even when he double times 'So what if you're from the other side of the tracks, so what if the world don't think we match' the track is stuck flat on its face. There is a case for Timbaland to try to inject something in to all of these songs. Considering the average length of each track, the need is for more than just a hip-hop production approach, these songs need to be crafted and structured. It's quite possibly beyond his capabilities. Stamping tracks at 7 minutes under the guise of it being more artistic is a shockingly see-through plot.

Where the album is at it's most comfortable is within the traditional realm of Timbaland. Rather than relying on samples, he usually infuses his more upbeat production with his own chopped and skewed vocals to provide depth and backing. His percussion technique is unique, it harnesses the entire kit and creates a rhythmical jungle type low down beat that works brilliantly when juxtaposed with the fanfare of producers like Just Blaze and Swizz Beatz. Don't Hold The Wall is an aggressive beat with an interesting backing vocal track that comfortably fills any empty spaces, infusing the senses, and at 4:20 the song drops in to a much more menacing groove, justifying it's 7+ time. Tunnel Vision is this album's What Goes Around, which means it is hamstrung before it even starts as that song was a masterpiece. However this is a worthy follow up. JT is again stuck in sap, 'Maybe its this ocean view, I'm so emotional' and 'I wrote a song for you, I wanna sing to you / Every time I'm close to you' don't endear to many older than 15, but on this occasion his voice melds beautifully with the string and synth riff, creating a lovely dreamy atmosphere that still surges forward.

The best two tracks on the record are easily Suit & Tie and Let The Groove Get In. Two different songs, but both displaying unrestrained energy. Suit & Tie is some of Timbalands best production since 2007, another jungle-esque beat with uncharacteristic horn explosions that signal tempo changes as JT croons and soothes us before Jay-Z comes and delivers a verse that sounds off-kilter at first but grows on further listens. A more confident JT on Let the Groove Get In invites the listener to finally let their hair down for a bit, as if he snuck out of gentleman's club he'd been singing in to go party with the help downstairs. 'Make no mistake - you're in the place to be by far / So let's get crazy like we ain't never gonna see tomorrow' finally fun Justin arrives! It's just a pity he arrives so late, and in another epic 7 minute song that badly needs trimming.

4/10. Slick, is my response to the earlier question, and poorly executed. Aforementioned power will help sales and ensure a healthy dose of positive reception, but there is little substance to back this release up. There is only one real stand out track (Suit & Tie), the others rest on pretension and a gamble that by creating something that sounds significantly different to current radio playlists this record will be revered. The song length is criminal at times, there is no need to extend a one dimensional beat 3 minutes past its use by date. Timberlake's personality is equally strained, with his only mode appearing to be sugar-drenched love song, which is fine if it isn't drawn out to cover an entire albums worth of material. A disappointing effort.
Best Tracks: Suit & Tie, Let the Groove Get In

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