Sunday, March 17, 2013

album review: 'the 20/20 experience' by justin timberlake

I think that Justin Timberlake and I got off on the wrong foot.

And really, it's not entirely his fault either. Like nearly every other kid who grew up in the late 90s, I got caught up the boy band wars, and I firmly landed in the Backstreet Boys camp (still am in the Backstreet Boys camp, by the way, mostly because I think the majority of their material has more lasting appeal than N'Sync). Thankfully I wasn't one of the insane fans that would automatically deride all of a band's work because of my 'allegiance' to their counterpart, but, well, Justin Timberlake was a member of N'Sync and I have never thought N'Sync were as good as the Backstreet Boys. Yes, 'Tearing Up My Heart', 'Bye Bye Bye', 'Gone', 'It's Gonna Be Me', and '(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You' are all great songs, but N'Sync gravitated towards slick, glassy R&B that I never felt they could back up effectively, mostly because they never had a member of the band with an authoritative baritenor like Kevin or A.J..

But really, it wasn't just that Justin Timberlake was a member of N'Sync - he was N'Sync, and I'm not surprised at all that he was really the only boy band member to strike out on his own and find mainstream solo success. Success that, I will admit, I dismissed for a long time for a number of reasons that I definitely couldn't articulate at the time. I definitely thought throughout the mid-2000s that Timbaland, his producer partner, was more engaging and entertaining that Justin Timberlake ever was. Timbaland had a unique style, a gift for superb hip-hop beats, and a great bass that gave his songs a surprising degree of authority. Timbaland did for the mid-to-late-2000s what the Neptunes did for the early 2000s: monopolized pop radio and made a shit-load of awesome music. 

But now it's 2013 - and after a long hiatus, Justin Timberlake has come back to 'reclaim his title' as the best male pop star in the modern industry. Let me restate something I've said a number of times before: after Michael Jackson faded away in the 90s, there has been something of a contest to see who will take his place, and for the most part of the 2000s, it has been between Usher and Justin Timberlake. Sure, Chris Brown has thrown his hat into the ring, but thankfully the majority of sane people have dismissed the little pissant's boast, which leaves this a two man race. 

But if I'm going to be completely honest, I think that Justin Timberlake has always been a bit ahead of Usher in this contest. Usher's best music has always been about, well, sex - Timberlake sings about sex and love and all the rest of that stuff, but his lyrical influences and musical stylinEgs are just a bit more eclectic (mostly thanks to Timbaland, who has been playing the Quincy Jones to Timberlake's Michael since 2006). And yeah, going back through Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds today, I can finally admit that Justin Timberlake is a good pop star. In fact, he's a great pop star, with a number of slick, polished, incredibly solid pop songs. And with shockingly solid performances in movies (I'd argue that he was one of the best things about The Social Network, outside of the script and direction) and in stand-up comedy (particularly on SNL - and considering Timberlake's pedigree, it's a little amazing that he managed not to go the way of John Mayer when it comes to braving the comedy gauntlet), I can state he's a genuine triple threat.

So why the hell can't I like the guy's music?

Because I want to like Justin Timberlake, and there are a few songs where he does deliver, but why the hell does his music feel so fleeting and forgettable to me in comparison to Usher's? The only two Justin Timberlake songs I've ever really liked off his last albums were 'Sexyback' and 'Give It To Me', the latter simply because it's one of the most scathing diss tracks to have ever become popular. That song, with verses from Nelly Furtado (dissing critics who dislike the fact she stopped singing insufferable and pretentious adult alternative and starting making much better pop music) and Timbaland (who thrashes former collaborator Scott Storch), works both because it's a great song, but also because of sheer audacity. Mostly because on that track, Justin Timberlake disses Prince.

Yeah, you read that right. The story goes that shortly after the release of 'Sexyback', Prince saw Timberlake at an Entertainment Tonight party and shouted across the room that 'sexy never left', something that Timberlake took umbrage with and recorded a pretty vicious diss in response. That took balls, particularly considering that Justin Timberlake - and indeed the majority of modern pop/R&B singers - owe a debt to Prince's experimentation and genius that would be impossible to pay off, and yet Timberlake chose to diss him. As I said before, the song was solid before Timberlake's verse, but the sheer audacity elevates it to another level.

But upon reflection, I think that's always been part of my problem with Justin Timberlake: the man is justifiably confident in his delivery and songwriting, and he has a ton of polish and sleek style - but despite all of this, in his solo work it never seemed like he was trying. And sure, you could argue that he's has never really needed to try, but to me, it leeches some of the likability out of the performer. When you consider the 'risks' he's taken as an artist, nothing that he has done has been all that revolutionary to the genre in the way Michael Jackson or Prince were in the 80s. Let's compare him to Usher, for example, because while there have been tracks Usher has phoned it in, for the most part his material is emotionally driven and passionate. And this is because Usher throws himself into tracks with force and passion, and even on his 'slow-burn' tracks like 'Climax' (which is Usher's best song), you can tell he's working his ass off to really sell the emotions in the song in a way that Justin Timberlake really never has. 

But now he's come back with a new album after a six year hiatus - and really, you have to consider what he's facing, because the pop world has evolved a lot since Timberlake dropped FutureSex/LoveSounds back in 2006. The club boom has come and (nearly) gone, indie rock has flooded the charts, and a new generation of boy bands has arrived. Along the axes of pop music (which, just to remind you all, are the axes of intelligence and maturity), the advent of mainstream indie rock has pushed half of the charts towards smarter, more mature music (mostly - there are exceptions), while the rest has shot down towards dumb immaturity in the vein of the success of One Direction and the motherfucking 'Harlem Shake'. So the task ahead of Justin is immense - not only does he have to reassert himself as a presence in the pop landscape, he has to show that he can be influential on the pop scene. If he really wants to claim the throne of the king of pop, he needs The 20/20 Experience to take off in a big way.

And having now listened to the album... I don't know if that's going to happen, because Justin Timberlake didn't just choose The 20/20 Experience as his comeback album, he also chose it as an artistic statement and chose to load it with seven minute songs. Because, as he said, 'if Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin can do it, why can't we'? And putting aside the borderline heresy in that statement, The 20/20 Experience is a decidedly odd and frustrating album. It's looking to do a lot of things: a comeback for Justin Timberlake, a pop smash hit, and a critically acclaimed 'art-pop' album. Most albums would have a hard time being one of those things, and it would require a damn miracle to get all of those things to come together.

The shocking thing is how damn close The 20/20 Experience gets to that point, and its failure is all the more glaring in comparison to everything it gets right.

So let's begin with everything the album gets right, because believe it or not, there's a lot of genuine greatness here. Justin Timberlake's voice is damn near flawless, and for the first time in his career, he actually has a few songs where he sounds like he's trying, which, to my satisfaction, makes him infinitely more likable. And plus, all the old reasons people fell in love with this guy - great voice, ton of charisma, assertive personality, definitive swagger - are still here. 

And while Justin Timberlake will always be a little too polished for my tastes, I can't deny that he does one thing with his pop music that I've always liked - he brings class. Not just good taste - Kanye has that, but his corniness, weak flow, and occasional terrible rhyme (to say nothing of his uncomfortable openness) - but class. There's no surprise Timberlake's lead single was 'Suit & Tie' - Justin Timberlake likes making music that's respectable and sophisticated and slick and polished and opulent. He possesses the unique blend of swagger and respectability that made performers like Sinatra and Jay-Z compelling, and indeed, Jay-Z shows up on 'Suit & Tie' and actually delivers. But when Timberlake brings class to pop music - which tends to be plastic and ephemeral and generally lacking in class, particularly in recent years - I can say it's only a step in the right direction. By bringing class to pop, he channels the universality of the medium to pass on that feeling of slick sophistication. It's sort of like what Beyonce does with her independent women anthems, but instead of channeling empowerment, Timberlake channels smooth, sexy class, the 'modern man' aesthetic, if you will. I like that.

And it must be said that Timbaland delivers damn near flawless production on this album, with layered and complex beats that really gel together in a slick, effortless way. Timbaland has always been a great producer, but his blending of 50s doo-wop and swing with 70s reggae rhythms with the glassy production of modern R&B is surprising and way better than I was expecting. The music is carefully crafted to convey class from multiple generations and synthesize it, and it works for the most part. Not all the time, mind you - 'Don't Hold The Wall' sounds like a sloppy early 2000s track that has those goddamn chipmunk voice effects, which I fucking despise - but the majority of the time. The best track on the album by far is 'Mirrors', mostly because Timbaland managed to fuse classical music with modern R&B in a gloriously powerful song that's probably the best thing Justin Timberlake has ever done, at least in my opinion.

But I've been skirting around the main, deal-breaking problems with The 20/20 Experience for too long, and now I'm at the point where we need to discuss the big, glaring issues that fatally cripple this album. And these issues, strangely enough, are linked to Justin Timberlake's towering arrogance as a music star, which is really the only explanation that makes sense when you consider the big problems of the album.

Let's go back to 'Mirrors', which, funnily enough, captures both of the big issues with the album in microcosm. Now keep in mind that I think 'Mirrors' is a great song, mostly because it brings together everything that makes Justin Timberlake a solid performer: great instrumentation, a lot of charisma and energy, and Justin Timberlake brings his a-game. Hell, he even sounds like he's trying on this song! But as much as I like the song - and I do - it's over eight minutes long. In fact, the majority of the songs on The 20/20 Experience are over five minutes long, which is damn near unheard of in the modern pop landscape. When asked about this, Justin Timberlake dismissed the complaint, saying that 'well, we'll let the radio edit figure it out' (we'll come back to this). 

But those of you who have read my reviews before are frowning with confusion. 'Silens', you say, 'you listen to prog rock, you have no problems with eight minute songs!' And that would be completely true - but there is a fine art to the long, epic song lasting over five minutes. These songs tend to blend multiple musical styles, which require transitions and a fair amount of structure. But even putting aside the structure, if you're going to sustain our interest on a long song, you need a hell of a premise to run with and expand upon. Most pop songs are short because you can't stretch the concepts behind them for seven or eight minutes. Prog rock like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin tend to have longer songs because they have more complex instrumental solos or philosophical concepts or entire lengthy stories that they're trying to tell - and even with all of that, the genre was still considered unwieldy and indulgent!

And while I appreciate Justin Timberlake's ambition with The 20/20 Experience, the first big issue with the album is that the concepts that he wants to explore and expand upon are just too goddamn lightweight to sustain seven minute songs - hell, in some cases, I'd argue they'd have a hard time sustaining three minute songs ('Don't Hold The Wall' and 'Blue Ocean Floor' both spring to mind). Like it or not, Justin Timberlake is still writing pop songs, and pop songs benefit from tighter, leaner construction - and this album, despite all of its great production and solid vocals, is bloated. There's no need for 'Mirrors' to be eight minutes long, and I think I'd like it a lot more than I do if it was slimmed down and not as gratuitously indulgent - which, really, is the best way to describe this entire album.

Now sure, sometimes Timberlake tries to bring more material to the table to sustain the longer songs, like in 'Pusher Love Girl' (where he pushes the 'girl = drugs/drug dealer' metaphor to the limit). But the problem with these songs is that the transitions between the disparate musical elements are so sloppy and clumsy that they feel like Timberlake just smashed two different songs with similar themes together. There sure as hell isn't much narrative coherency, that's for damn sure. 

In fact, this album initially kind of baffled me, because I had a hard time discerning any kind of narrative at all. What was the album about, what were the themes and messages, what was the 'album statement'? 

Well, there isn't a true 'album statement' with The 20/20 Experience, and the next big problem with the album. Now I get that Timberlake is more of a 'singles artist' than an 'album artist', and there's nothing wrong with that, but that begs the question why on earth Justin Timberlake was seeking to emulate acts like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin with long, extended songs. That's the other big thing with prog rock that Justin Timberlake completely misses: albums like The Wall and The Dark Side Of The Moon were album statements with meaty themes that provoke discussion and analysis. 

Justin Timberlake, on the other hand, wrote an album of slick, classy love songs - that's it. No album statement, no grand unifying theme, nothing - which makes his choice for gratuitously long pop songs, most of which drag painfully, seem incredibly indulgent. And note that I'm saying 'love' songs, but I haven't specified who the target of Timberlake's affections are. There's a reason for that - because I'm starting to think Justin Timberlake's biggest affections are for himself. And the bizarre thing is that it comes up in the songwriting not just occasionally, but frequently. 'Suit & Tie' is a song that relies entirely on the fact Justin Timberlake got dressed up and is ready to kick ass and take names, and the girl just happened to bring her a-game too. 'Spaceship Coupe' is a song where Justin Timberlake takes the girl in his space car and flies them to the moon for them to fuck, because he's just that awesome. Hell, 'Mirrors' might be the most gratuitous example of this: it's a song where Timberlake is trying to help a girl pull through her problems, but when she gets there, it's like he's been looking into a mirror - you know, a reflection of himself

Now, granted, the lyrical conceit (pun intended) is part of Timberlake's style, and I can go with it. The problem comes that combined with the massively long songs that don't earn their length and the generally ephemeral subject matter, the lyrics don't come across as confident, but swollen with ego. And as much as Justin Timberlake has earned the right to brag, it becomes grating that his bragging isn't about anything more substantial or meaningful. If the songs were more tightly constructed, or if Timberlake was a better songwriter and had more complex things to say on the subjects of love and sex, I'd overlook the arrogance, but here it comes across as obnoxious. Even on the best songs of this album, I have a really hard time ignoring the thought that 'Wow, this guy is completely full of himself', and that sucks a ton of likability from the performer.

But do you want to know the clinching blow, the point that really knocked The 20/20 Experience out of my good books? It was his statement regarding radio-edits of songs, that his songs could be as long as he wanted, and the radio edits would ensure they got airplay. For a comparison, acclaimed songwriter Jim Steinman fought tooth & nail to get long songs like 'It's All Coming Back To Me' and 'Paradise By The Dashboard Light' and 'I Would Do Anything For Love' on the airwaves, and he fought against every bar they cut from those songs. He wanted those songs to be preserved in their entirety, for art doesn't hold the same impact if it's cut down - to put it another way, the Cliff Notes of a book are never going to have the same impact as the book itself.

But Timberlake doesn't care if his songs are shortened for radio play. Not only does this prove that the album is needlessly indulgent and lengthy, but it shows Justin Timberlake isn't willing to fight for his songs to shown in their entirety (and let me remind you that radio stations did play Timberlake's longer songs like 'My Love' and 'Lovestoned' on the radio in full back in 2006). Now some might say that it means Timberlake doesn't have a lot of confidence in his art, that he knows his songs could and should be chopped down, but that would imply a self-awareness in Timberlake that I don't think he has. No, I think it's more symptomatic of the bigger problem I have with him, the problem I've always had with him: that he just doesn't care enough, so he's not going to try. He knows he's going to make a killing off of this album, so why would he bother fighting for his art or even attempting to make album statements? He doesn't need to - and he knows it, and doesn't care. And as someone who really, really wanted to like this album, that was the straw that broke the camel's back for me.

And you know, it's such a goddamn shame, because I think Justin Timberlake could make a fantastic, seminal, challenging album if he actually tried. There are great moments on The 20/20 Experience, and there are great songs. 'Mirrors' and 'Tunnel Vision' are both very solid, very good pop songs that I highly recommend, and in the latter case even make a convincing argument that Timberlake could actually pull off the art-pop style with lengthy songs that meant something. But as a whole, this album reeks of hubris and arrogance. It's indulgent, clumsy, painfully shallow, and while I hate using this word, it fits in this case: pretentious. Check out the singles, but I'd advise you to skip this album.

And as much good as Justin Timberlake brings to the pop scene, with his class and swagger and great instrumentation, I'm not sure I want to see him have his big comeback with this album, not until he checks his ego at the door.

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