The recording industry has seen a recent upswing in its sales, namely in the form of singer-songwriters who can craft music that grabs your ears –and most often – your heart. After experiencing record-shattering sales in the early part of the last decade (2001-2006) with releases from Eminem, Britney Spears and continuous reissues of albums from The Beatles, the second part (2007-2010) of the decade was flush with “singles” artists. The “album” gave way to “singles”, leaving the “record” – the physical device that plays music, e.g. a CD or vinyl album – to audio purists and DJs.
Many musicians are cognizant of the idea that most listeners want instant gratification. In the past, an artist would release a “single” for radio airplay in the hopes that it would drive listeners to purchase the complete album. Today, artist’s release “singles” in the hopes that listeners will spend a dollar for the song and will return to buy the next one a few weeks later. The cohesive album that demands to be heard as a whole is becoming a thing of the past, at least in regards to mainstream artist – with only Adele and Taylor Swift making major dents in the Billboard sales records.
This week marks the return- or the continued return if you haven’t watch any TV over the past three weeks- of the one remaining few artists who may strive for something greater than some quick “hits”. Justin Timberlake has released his first album of new material since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds to the anticipation of critics and fans alike. We live in an age where a celebrity cannot order ice cream without a viral announcement of it; however, two artists (David Bowie is the other) were able to record and publish albums without a peep on FaceBook or Twitter. While only appearing as a guest, or a producer, on numerous tracks over the past few years Justin became a successful movie star and seemed to put his music career on permanent hiatus. Then, the calendar changed to 2013 and he returned to the surprise of, well, basically everyone!
It took only a few weeks, but a cryptic announcement on Twitter followed by a barrage of performances and television appearances –including another hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and a week-long stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon- has thrust Justin back into the musical spotlight. It’s been difficult to tell who is more enthused by his return, the music industry or his fans.
The release and subsequent playback of “The 20/20 Experience” has brought this writer – and proclaimed JT “superfan” – to an unexpected place. What is that place? Somewhere between encouraged and exhausted. Does the hype meet the reality? Has the seven-year layoff sapped his ability create and perform memorable songs? Has acting affected the way he approaches music? Has his recent marriage?
In various interviews prior to the album’s release, Justin claimed that the disc was designed as “visual music”. True, if you listen to the album in a dark room with headphones you could close your eyes and “feel” the abundance of instruments and effects that litter each track. Each song is layered as an experience for the ears and the soul; however, some entries can be like listening/watching a movie that goes twenty-minutes too long. Ever notice how movies are edited for TV so they fit an allotted time slot? This is an album that may benefit from some trimming, eight of the albums tracks average seven minutes in length.
The growth, or adaptation of an artist, can be both frustrating and exciting. In 2002, Justin released his first solo album to the enjoyment of many who claimed he couldn’t break from his boy-band shackles; this disc provided numerous songs that are still on regular rotation. In 2006, he put the industry “on notice” with the release of “FutureSex/LoveSounds”, which blended deep-beats with an adventurous tone. Both releases were a mix of radio-friendly hits and artistically-deft grooves. The 20/20 Experience dabbles in both styles, while completely walking away from them at the same time. The old combined pop and hip-hop, while the new blends soul and R&B with a healthy-helping of brass. If he used to emulate Michael Jackson while keeping pace with Usher; the new set emulates Stevie Wonder and while keeping pace with Maxwell and Frank Ocean. If the first two albums were for the club, then The 20/20 Experience is for the day that follows.
1) Pusher Love Girl… JT sets the tone early with the fanfare of strings and horns, finding an early groove. The first of many mid-tempo songs that start as one thing and fade into something else completely. A 60’s era soul/funk sound dissolves into a Timbaland-bass infused tome about love as a drug. This is one of the few tracks on the album that benefits from the shift and extended play time. Its two different vibes that share a common theme. (Good start, an “A”)
2) Suit & Tie… If you thought this song was strange the first time you heard it – since most releases do not have horns or drastically change tempo mid-song – then it’ll make more sense in the context of the album. Also, it’s the only place you’ll hear a voice other than JT or Timbaland. The song may change tone and may actually suffer from the appearance of Jay-Z, but it doesn’t stop it from being a head-bobbing welcome back. (B+)
3) Don’t Hold The Wall… A combo jam that mixes the southern hemisphere with a Saturday-night club prowl. Timbaland shines on this track as he is asked “Well, how do you like it?”, with a simple “you shouldn’t have to ask me that question!” as his beats crush your speakers. (B)
4) Strawberry Bubblegum… If the album began with a comparison of love and drugs, then this is his candy-coated version. This “sweet” ditty may also be the albums silliest and include the most obvious lyrics (“Be my strawberry bubblegum, and I’ll be your blueberry lollipop”). What are you trying to say? Duh! However, this is one song that benefits from the shift-change; moving from a soft R&B rhythm to an airier stroll. (C+)
5) Tunnel Vision… The most aggressive -if any song on this album could be called “aggressive”- track takes Justin’s love to a level of obsession. His recent success in film is recognizable here as he uses his camera to zoom in on the only person he truly sees. The extended nature of this song leans back toward the lengthy creations of Quincy Jones during the prime of Michael Jackson’s career, but with a distinctly Timbaland sound. (B+)
6) Spaceship Coupe… Got a vibe for some classic “baby-makin’” R&B? Well, here it is! JT wants to take you on a ride into space and “make love on the moon”. If Prince wasn’t happy when “SexyBack came out, then he may not be happy with this one. (C)
7) That Girl… Returning to the neo-Soul sound that opened the set, JT tells the world he is in love and it doesn’t matter what everyone says. A classy guitar riff and new-generation clicks highlight the only track at a length suitable for radio, if 4:47 was a suitable length for radio play. (B+)
8) Let The Groove Get In… The album’s most exciting song is also the one that sounds least like the artist who made it. The long opening layers new instruments and sounds over each other (African-tribal beats, conga drums and a barrage of brass) in a tribute to The Miami Sound Machine and their salsa-shakers. Basically, it’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” with tribal beats; this is not a slight. Also, this will likely be the song that will be the most fun in concert. (B+)
9) Mirrors… If we could pick a song that can be labeled as “classic JT”, then this is it. The beats are reminiscent of “Cry Me A River” and “What Goes Around…Comes Around”, but it’s the opposite feeling. Instead of the aching of a broken heart he tells his beloved that they are reflections of each other. Again, here is another track whose extension only enhances the experience. (A+)
10) Blue Ocean Floor… Justin, have you been listening to Frank Ocean or Radiohead lately? Because I think you have! The set closes with the reverse playback of a cassette deck and a beat-less rhythm about finding someone who may be lost with nothing, but can be found by the beating of their heart. It’s romantic and lush for the ears. (B-)
In a triumphant -if not exhausting- return to music, Justin Timberlake has crafted an album that breaks the rules of popular music (limited guest spots, lengthy songs and changes of tone throughout). The hype may not meet reality for most listeners, but it will likely open them up to new sounds and arrangements. Casual fans will dismiss the lack of a “hit” (e.g. a “Sexyback” or “Rock Your Body”), while devotees will enjoy the return but may be disappointed by the results. His professional growth is obvious and his dedication to making something unique should be applauded as he breezes through the songs with a relaxed nature missing from both of his previous releases. His experiences in film and the layoff that came with it are expressed throughout. Also, it’s tough to miss the love he displays for his new wife, Jessica Biel.
It is a cohesive work that is best when listened as a whole, but there are times when we need three-and-a-half minutes of pop excitement! After waiting seven years for new material, it seems all things are 20/20…especially in hindsight.