“He’s so talented he can do anything!” That’s the gist of what’s typically said about Justin Timberlake, and for the most part it’s absolutely true. He’s an exceptionally nimble and unfettered singer/dancer, an extraordinary mimic with a drummer’s sense of timing. These gifts have helped him tremendously in comedy as well as drama, and despite the increasing maturity of his music and acting pursuits, he hasn’t let go of his ample boyish charm: This ex-Mouseketeer, ex-’N Sync-er still radiates mischievous yet all-American fun. And unlike so many stars who attain thoroughly mainstream saturation, he takes genuine risks that have actually increased his popularity: His last album, 2007′s FutureSex/LoveSounds, packs way more sonic, rhythmic and compositional quirks than most records that sell more than 10 million copies.
These are the stats that have empowered Timberlake to make a supremely — and, at times, foolishly — confident 20/20 Experience. As you can see, it’s 70 minutes but only 10 songs long. Most are straightforward from a songwriting standpoint: “Tunnel Vision,” “That Girl” and several others see-saw back and forth between two chords for extended and sometimes relatively static periods with minimal contrasts between verses and choruses. But most are also complex in arrangement and texture, adding and subtracting rhythm and tempo as they smoothly groove along. Although some like “Don’t Hold the Wall” accelerate into dance tracks, the overriding vibe is more bedroom/strip club than dancefloor, as if Timberlake envisioned a Prince album almost entirely comprised of deep cut ballads. Aside from the singles “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors,” which both draw from the opposing worlds of blatant chart pop and PBR&B, there’s little indication that anyone tried terribly hard to write hooks. Instead, this feels like a deservedly rich guy’s willfully anti-commercial fantasy of bohemian retro-futurist soul mother lode.
As such, Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE looms large over 20/20. But where Ocean employed complex chords and fearlessly soul-searched, this uncomplicatedly happy guy simply riffs on sex, status and his favorite records. He’s still in cahoots with Timbaland, the super-producer who practically invented these lurching, squelchy electro slow jams decades ago with Aaliyah and Ginuwine. Symphonic string swells and big band horn blasts may punctuate the otherwise slinky likes of “Pusher Love Girl,” but Timbaland doesn’t take Timberlake too far from Southern hip-hop: 20/20 is mixed to favor jeep-bumping bass that tends to blur the tony details that have been showcased far more successfully in the entertainer’s televised performances of this material. As such, 20/20 already feels more like a stepping-stone for multi-million-dollar tours, endorsement deals and general world domination than an entirely satisfying autonomous listening experience. Suit and tie aside, it’s simultaneously over and underdressed.