Sunday, April 07, 2013

Justin Timberlake is back

album review

The 20/20 Experience embraces the style set by JT's previous albums and takes it a step further

Artist:  Justin Timberlake
Album: The 20/20 Experience

Starting out on The Disney Channel and then fronting a boy band might be suitable stepping stones for fame but aren't necessarily the best start to a career if you ultimately want to establish yourself as a serious artist. Yet Justin Timberlake has shown us that it can be done. The former Mickey Mouse Club cast member and 'N Sync singer left his band to channel his burgeoning fame into a solo career, releasing two successful albums and partaking in a number of collaborations. But after redefining his sound (and bringing sexy back, all in one go) with his sophomore release Futuresex/Lovesounds in 2006, JT chose to take a musical hiatus and pursue acting instead.

Now, after a six-year break, the singer returns, with pomp and promotion machines in full swing, to reclaim his position on the pop throne with his third studio album, The 20/20 Experience. Drenched in hype and strained with ambition, the release puts forth another set of polished contemporary R&B tracks that are extendedly long and experimentally indulgent.

Just like the old-school vibe that has been employed in the run up campaign to the album, the record itself harks back to the suavity of a bygone era and embellishes it with modern touches. Wrapped in a shroud of slick production and immersed in a wave of throwback vibes, the record embraces the style set by its predecessor and then takes it a step further. Rejoining him in the studio is Timbaland, who shares the producer's chair with both the singer as well as Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon for the bulk of the record.

From the funky opener 'Pusher Love Girl' to the smooth closer 'Blue Ocean Floor', the production team weaves synths, strings, and horns into a textured tapestry that presents a mix of vintage and contemporary. The Michael Jackson and Prince comparisons don't cease with the new record, and flavours of Robin Thicke and Frank Ocean also surface. 'Let the Groove Get In' in particular reminds the listener of Michael Jackson's 'Wanna Be Starting Something' and 'Blue Ocean Floor' seems to make a play for Frank Ocean's Channel Orange earnestness.

However, it doesn't take long to notice that the album's sonic never connects with anything substantial. Just give the track listing a cursory glance and you will find songs with titles like 'Strawberry Bubblegum' and 'Spaceship Coupe' on the set; give them a close listen and you'll see that their content is just as daft as their titles. Saucy lyrics drenched in banal metaphors with cheap euphemisms thrown in for some misguided reason are not nearly as classy or charming as the songwriters appear to think. This may be music you can see, but a couple of times one can't help but wish it were music you could feel too. And then it starts to seem like they were so busy bloating the tracks that they forget to add substance to the mix. At times the album feels like it's saturated to the point that it lacks clarity; it might have helped if at some point the production team realized that sometimes displaying restraint can be just as important as being adventurous. The songs are frequently over seven minutes long, and the lack of charming content coupled with similar effects at length make it seem like aimless musical wandering, with the musician giving us an overlong piece to sift through and hunt for the exceptional bits ourselves.

Overall, The 20/20 Experience is well crafted but superficial, a record that can be lauded for its ambition but that could also have made a deeper connection with the listener if its maker so desired. Its musical choices are interesting and its experimentation impressive, but it ultimately feels like a producer's album instead of a singer's record. It is likely to take you multiple listens to really get to know the sonic intricacies of the tracks, and the album grows on you with every listen.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 7th April, 2013

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