Modern musician Timberlake radiates seriousness

'The 20/20 Experience' is pop star's first release since 2006

3/20/2013
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
On Tuesday, Justin Timberlake released
On Tuesday, Justin Timberlake released "The 20/20 Experience."

The last time Justin Timberlake released an album, Barack Obama was the junior senator from Illinois, Jay-Z and Beyonce were not married, and iPhones did not exist. It was 2006, just a few weeks before Taylor Swift's debut album arrived, setting her on the path to become perhaps the last old-fashioned pop superstar. But since then rapid industry decline and atomization have all but eliminated the need for Justin Timberlakes, or Taylor Swifts, or certainly the opportunities to make new ones.

In the meantime Timberlake signaled his importance in other ways: versatile appearances on Saturday Night Live, which he recently hosted for the fifth time; acting in films both acclaimed (The Social Network) and derided (The Love Guru); working on a fashion line; golfing. You know — a full life. Given all that, there's no good reason Timberlake, 32, should be making music anymore. And yet on Tuesday he released "The 20/20 Experience" (RCA), which could be mistaken for an exercise in hubris were it actually arrogant.

Most artists who stay away so long are trying to cleanse themselves of something — an unfortunate subgenre association, a nasty scandal. But mostly what Timberlake has been trying to cleanse himself of is music. That's reflective of his broader career goals, and also of the diminished value music stardom has in the current entertainment economy.

But while it was Timberlake's success in music that allowed him the chance to succeed in film, or TV, or fashion, or baking (who knows?), now the opposite is true: His sustained fame as a polymathic celebrity means there's still an appetite for his music, even if he's out of step with most current trends. (Or maybe he just has a contractual obligation. Nobler art has been made for less noble reasons.) He could have made a cabaret standards album, an acoustic singer-songwriter folk record, a ghastly dance-music immersion, a pseudo-Drake sing-rap hybrid. Any of those would have been more risky and more distinctive than what ended up on "The 20/20 Experience," an amiable, anodyne album that hopes not to alienate anyone but also doesn't offer new reasons to commit. It's an album of largely inconsequential beauty, showing Timberlake as an artist with no incentive to innovate, making this primarily a paean to brand maintenance. It's not meant to change minds.

That's clear from the first single, the breezy hit "Suit & Tie," which has the lighthearted bop of early New Edition with the vocal elegance of sunshine dappled soul groups like Tony! Toni! Tone! The molasses-y intro nods to Houston's screw music, and the song features the most negligible Jay-Z verse in recent memory (though this mediocre chemistry didn't preclude the two from teaming up for a tour this summer).

This CD cover image for
This CD cover image for "The 20/20 Experience."

The album begins with a labored Prince-esque woman-as-drugs comparison, "Pusher Love Girl," ("Just tell me, can I get a light?/Roll you up and let it run through my veins") and, not long after that, a less labored woman-as-tasty-treat comparison, "Strawberry Bubblegum," which has some pleasant frisson between Timberlake's sweet high voice and producer Timbaland's guttural exhortations.

It's odd that the one unreservedly great song on this album, "Tunnel Vision," could be by Chris Brown, it's so modern, with its updating of Timbaland's vintage stutter-step drums and icy synths. Also unexpected is the rhythmically exciting "Let the Groove Get In," which samples from an album of music from Burkina Faso, and is reminiscent of nothing so much as Beyonce's martial "Run the World (Girls)." It's almost a breaks record more than a proper song, with Timberlake working a few phrases over and over, never building any real tension or release.

"The 20/20 Experience" was made with a small group of collaborators — the producers Timbaland and Jerome Harmon (known as J-Roc), and the songwriter James Fauntleroy. Timberlake handled the vocal production and arrangements, and even some of the mixing. The result is a smallness of purpose, with only slight variation throughout, like the deeply wholesome soul of "That Girl" or the drowsy "Blue Ocean Floor," which had it been released two or three years ago, might have been called chillwave's pop breakthrough. (Maybe Timberlake has been listening to Enya in his downtime.)

Seven of the 10 songs are more than seven minutes. In an era of Frank Ocean soul meditation, this could pass for artistry, but really it's a gesture of conservatism, an argument for the album as a whole over whatever abbreviated singles will eventually be shipped to radio. It also harks back to '70s soul, Prince's funk breakdowns, and Michael Jackson's hyper-ornate pop. It is Timberlake radiating seriousness, lest you think his music making is frivolous.

There is something to that. This is just his third solo album; it's surprising how much of his fame is still rooted in his years in ‘NSYNC, how much of a head start that gave him. It's kept him afloat even though, of all current pop superstars, he is the least present, the one still dining out on marginal benefits from old work.

Maybe that's why, if Timberlake is trying to communicate anything about his music, it's a certain groundedness. On the Grammys, and also on "Saturday Night Live," he performed with a band set up behind podiums emblazoned with JT & The Tennessee Kids, a visual nod to swing bands and a gimmick that lands on the blue-eyed soul spectrum somewhere between throwback fetishist Mayer Hawthorne and earnest cheese ball Robin Thicke.

Until now Timberlake was rarely measured on that scale. He avoided those sorts of comparisons almost wholly thanks to the sui generis breakthrough of his debut album, "Justified," from 2002, which introduced him as confident, randy, and just a touch sinister and wounded. That album also cemented the producer Timbaland, once a revered hip-hop eccentric, as something of a modern pop savant. "FutureSex/ LoveSounds," Timberlake's follow-up, aimed lower aesthetically, but was embraced more widely.

But the peak of Timberlake's vocal feeling was "Gone," the 2001 ‘NSYNC song that effectively served as his solo coming-out party, and which highlighted his pained yelp. Yet over the years that's been sandpapered to a more restrained move, all but free of anguish or ecstasy. "Mirrors," the most nakedly emotional song on the new album — seemingly written for his wife, Jessica Biel — also perplexingly features the most vocal processing, burying Timberlake and his heart.

To show too much feeling would be to risk alienating people, and one of Timberlake's signatures is his accessibility. He's not common, but he's relatable, and never condescending. He gets a tremendous amount of mileage just for being a cool guy who's willing to hang out with regular folk.

During his "Saturday Night Live" performance of "Suit & Tie" he took a mild swipe at Kanye West, who'd recently targeted that song in one of his ceremonial mid-show rants. But just two days later, on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," he quickly retreated, smile beaming. Timberlake wouldn't rock a baby bassinet.

He just wants to entertain. On "Saturday Night Live" recently he put his musical gifts to wide use, impersonating Elton John eulogizing Hugo Chavez in song, reprising his partnership with Andy Samberg as sensual early-'90s white R&B goons for a dating show sketch, and dressed up as a piece of tofu, hawking a vegan restaurant by singing health-friendly versions of Chic's "Le Freak," Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything" and more.

He sounded more at home and vocally present in those moments than when singing his new songs, or almost anywhere on "The 20/20 Experience." Forget the album; go see the show, or whatever else Timberlake applies his talents to. He's learned how to be a musician who has no need to make records, the perfect solution to the modern economy.