First problem of the album: the lyrics suck SHIT. And people who use the good old “It’s a pop album so that doesn’t matter” line are milquetoasts whose idea of good pop albums come from what Pitchfork tells them. No, pop albums can have good lyrics, and even if they couldn’t, it doesn’t excuse stuff like naming drugs to compare your love to (“My heroine! My cocaine! My plum wine! My MDMA!”), saying shit like “Stop! Let me get a good look at it / So thick! Now I know why they call it a fatty! OW!” (you can tell he’s self-pleased with the double entendre), or digging up your 4th grade poems in the bridge of “Mirrors”; “Yesterday’s a history / Tomorrow’s a mystery” – fuck off.
Second problem of the album: I can only assume that everyone’s been wooed over by Justin Timberlake, which is why they’re giving these ridiculously long song lengths a free pass. I do understand, because he does rank somewhere up there with Fight Club-era Brad Pitt, Inception-era Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Crazy Stupid Love-era Ryan Gosling, Shame-era Michael Fassbender, etc. as one of the leading paragons of testicular excellence. I mean, he sings, dances, acts, and is beautiful? I’m sold. If the shortest track on the album, “That Girl” is any indication, Timberlake and Timbaland haven’t completely forgotten how to write a pop song without having it needlessly stretched.
“But these songs have multiple parts,” you argue? Firstly, that’s not true of “Tunnel Vision” or “Blue Ocean Floor,” but when certain parts of songs are so hackneyed, it begs the question why they weren’t denoted as completely different songs (as on the multipartite songs on FutureSex/LoveSounds) or why they weren’t made their own separate songs in the first place (ie. “Pusher Love Girl” at the 4:45 mark, “Don’t Hold the Wall” at the 4:20 mark, “Mirrors” at the 5:23 mark). Case in point are two of the singles on the album: “Suit & Tie” which has which has two succinct parts (or three, even, depending on how you look at it: Jay-Z’s verse is so phoned in and the beat is completely different that it might as well be its own section, which makes it that much easier to sever. It’s causing an otherwise good song appendicitis). While I do hold that the intro is definitely interesting and daring, considering how formless it is, the few seconds in between that and the main chunk of the song, when you’re kept in silenceland, is not a transition. Meanwhile, “Mirrors” could’ve even ended before the second part; Timbaland should have opted for a fade-out of the last instance of the chorus at the 3:43 mark. Instead, we have all the synths stripped away and all that’s left is a really boring beat. And then, to disguise the fact that “Mirrors” is nothing more than a generic pop song, Timbaland throws an interesting but ultimately lackluster outro at us to distract but that fact. In other words, a simple pop song masquerading as a progressive pop song because progressive pop is the case du jour, as opposed to the more natural “What Goes Around …/… Comes Around”. Elsewhere, the climax of “Strawberry Bubblegum” did not warrant the canoe trip to get there.
But regardless of all that, this is a great album; Justin Timberlake’s best. He might be overemoting too much on the “Spaceship Coupe” (the worst song on the album) but his blue-eyed soul sells “Pusher Love Girl” (best moment is at the 3:15 mark, where there’s a blast of synth followed by Timberlake’s “AHHHHHHHHH!”). On the same song, the juxtaposition between the song’s falsetto-ed main hook (“Pusher love”) works really well with the deeper-voiced response (“I’m just a ju-ju-ju-ju-junkie for your love”), and whereas Timbaland’s beat on “Spaceship Coupe” is bombastic, the one here is cinematic. Meanwhile, great melodies abound, as on “Suit & Tie,” “That Girl” (even if that’s all that song is), “Let the Groove Get In” and the first half of “Mirrors.” But even better than the singer are the songs. This might be Timbaland’s best collection of beats, ever. It’s certainly the most varied, with the 1970s-styled horns of “Suit & Tie,” the funk of “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Let the Groove Get In” (the opening crescendo-ing “OW!” is a helluva way to start the song), the piano line and gentle percussion that let “Strawberry Bubblegum” achieve the promise of its title, the witch-house during the verses and the string hook of “Tunnel Vision” and its hard-hitting drums and the ambient washes of “Blue Ocean Floor.”
This is the rare case of an album that truly – ahem – justified the hype it received at the time and the rarer case of an album that was overlooked after the fact. It’s Timberlake’s own damn fault the latter happened: deciding to release a disc of outtakes with songs that mocked blues (“Drink You Away”) or mimicked Michael Jackson (“Take Back the Night”) and pretending that it was a disc of proper songs and forcing people to buy the whole thing all over again made it so that critics completely forgot to put The 20/20 Experience at the top of their year-end lists. It definitely deserved to be though; the best R&B album of 2013.