Mostly, I'm just grateful.
I'm grateful because when Justin Timberlake puts out a new album, I somehow become a handsomer man. My clothes fit better. My feet dance better. My charms charm better.
That this handsoming effect is a mental one in no way diminishes from its corporeality. Have this album in your earbuds, and you project pretty. Project attractiveness out onto the world, and the world will see attractiveness.
Energy can be neither created or destroyed, only channeled, which makes Timberlake a superconductor, gathering an amorous confidence concentrate, channeling it into his pop-tunes, until finally unleashing it on the world like a Hadouken of swagger.
This Swagdouken isn't meant to inspire an army of popped-collar douches whose only pursuit is That Thing, That Thing, That Thiiing. It plays to something more genuine and authentic. It plays for the heart.
Throughout The 20/20 Experience, JT chooses imagery over subtlety, crafting a fully realized, lushly rendered romantic arc, from the inception of love to its pursuit and realization, until finally rounding back to explore the implications of its conception. This is Justin Timberlake's full-throated effort at making the most comprehensively romantic album of all time.
So thanks, JT, and to a lesser degree The Tennessee Kids, because your album is a far cheaper alternative than investing in an entirely new wardrobe, and a lot less draining than, say, exercise. And yet it awards a swollen sense of self-confidence to those that choose to believe in its love-propaganda, all the same.
Having listened through this album a few dozen times, some thoughts have been synthesized. A perspective or two has even been gleaned. What follows is a track-by-track analysis of Timberlake's latest grand ambition. Try not to fall in love during the discussion. Or, maybe more in keeping with the album's goals, do.
1) Pusher Love Girl
|“Let's grow together.”|
The Vibe: Pick-me-upped
The Move: Practice-dancing in a mirror
The album opens with string-section overture that evokes a majestic classic-era Hollywood-style romance picture. It is a grandiose declaration; “Expect big movements and big emotions. Have popcorn and makeouts at the ready.”The lights come down, the sounds swells, and the epic begins.
As a thematic mission statement for the album to which it serves as prologue, this song calls back to FutureSex LoveSounds, the lead track and namesake of JT's last release. Then, Justin himself was the attraction, representing a new brand of exotic sensuality he had discovered in worlds and times unknown, like a freaky-deeky Christopher Columbus. He was the pusher, pushing up on her. He was the seductioneer.
Things have changed. Here, Timberlake plays a more passive role. On this album he extends all of his efforts into building a rapport between the Singer and the Lover. These aren't characters in a narrative, they're roles whose specificity will come into focus throughout. Here, with Justin assuming the role of the addict, the entire power dynamic is inverted; this isn't a matter of JT using all his charisma to woo and win a lady. Instead, he's powerless, not only to the Girl in question, but also to addicting force of nature that is Love.
The song's playfulness makes the entire affair feel aspirational. It's like an open casting call for the One who will make the Singer feel addicted and transfixed and obsessed and unreasonable. This Lover, over time and tracks, will evolve, and the image of her sharpens, but here's she's just a thought. Someone, somewhere, out there, waiting to be discovered. And sung to. And be allowed to charge whatever she pleases for her futuresexlovedrugs completely free of fear of DEA interference.
The other statement this track makes, that heralds things to come, is its runtime. This album is pretty committed to the 7ish minute long song. It revels in its own excess every chance it gets because it knows it can.
Longer songs make for sexier songs. You aren't bored by the fifth minute. Unless you're doing it wrong.
2) Suit & Tie
|"Why yes, I did invest heavily in bow ties before releasing this single."|
The Vibe: Amped
The Move: Straighten the cufflinks
My feelings on the album's lead single have vacillated mightily since the first listen.
First singles suck. It is known. The first single will be the first one you come to skip once you've listened to the album in its entirety. It will be overplayed and played-out and become so ubiquitous you will forget why you ever liked it, or radio, or television (and its commercials) in the first place. That's not Timberlake's fault, or the song's fault; it's the fault of The Machine. The Machine is what gives shared/pop culture its agency, but its churn also perverts everything it touches, if we let it. Or when we become jaded.
So that's the world as we live in it. The Machine is going to do what The Machine is going to do. And given this context, and as if its mother was Skynet, Suit & Tie seems self-aware. It's an onomatopoeia; the song is exactly what it sounds like, and what it sounds like is a call-to-arms heralding the Return of the [Suit-and] Tie-guy.
Its runtime (shorter than all but one of the non-bonus tracks) and Jay-Z guest feature suggest a tacit acknowledgment of its relative weakness, or lack of substance, with regards to the rest of the album. Jay-Z is the most authoritative hype-man one could find, whose whole brand represents credibility. But he was also never above putting out commercial singles and letting die-hard fans find the juicy stuff on the record.
What makes Suit & Tie an easy song to target or get bored with is that it's so broad, which it was obviously designed to be. The only thing about it even nearly subtle are the cowbells(?). But it's worth remembering that when the song first dropped, the entire Internet was overwhelmed, immediately becoming a singular glass case of emotion. It was the musical equivalent of Arrested Development getting its fourth season- a euphoric breakthrough fans had anticipated as long as they could remember. So in the instant those horns started, and Justin kicked into his falsetto, millions of wishing-well pennies were cashed in. As soon as that first listen-through was over, though, there was no longer a return to herald. JT wasn't “coming” back; he was back. The song carried a message with a very short shelf-life. Nobody ever framed the Michael Jordan “I'm Back,” fax. Except maybe his agent. And Nike.
Beyond self-promotion, there is another function to this track. By focusing in so tightly on style and presentation, Timberlake is creating a permissive environment to house his/our vanity. This isn't destructive narcissism, it's just a touch of vanity to be indulged and allow to be motivated into enjoying a little game dress-up. It's a luxury, just like Jay-Z's inclusion. And as anyone who has even heard 16 bars of Watch The Throne is well-aware, the Jiggaman is indeed well-versed in luxury. It may not be the noblest statement a single's ever made, but it's also free of any sort of malice or aggressiveness. It's the good part of a Friday night, the optimistic part, not the entitled or conflicting or draining part of Another Amateur Night On The Town.
It's literally style over substance. And, every once and a while, JT assures us, that's totally fine.
3) Don't Hold The Wall
|At least she'll always have this.|
The Move: Two-step with locked eyes for the better part of 7 minutes
So in music there's this entire cottage industry built on the legacy of Michael Jackson. This is a good thing, because, falsetto. This song makes a good case for why JT is a bit of a truer MJ torch-bearer than noted Michael-disciple Usher. Justin is All. About. The. Dance. With him, the dance *is* the seduction. Getting her to the floor to tap toes is the goal unto itself. With Usher, all that dancing in the back of the club is basically going down because that's the most efficient/socially acceptable route for him to get inside her. As R&B masters and sexual icons, they're both chasers, but where Usher's persona seems to relish the kill, JT's seems to favor the hunt. The dance. Timberlake's sexuality reads as more inferred, more patient.
That distinction and distance between the tools of seduction and the act of sex was a pretty defining characteristic of Michael Jackson's music. There was abundant sexiness throughout MJ's music, but not a lot of sex. This was a huge contrast to the contemporaneous work of Prince, whose use of sexual imagery was always so explicit and immediate. Michael was at his best basking in the iconic romance. He would've rather been the last pair dancing than the first one upstairs.
By this third track, Justin is primed to get his Lover off the wall and onto the floor. Producer/ JT-whisperer Timbaland also makes his familiar presence felt, unleashing his signature sound and rhythm while vocally instructing over the haunting, belly-dancing tune.
This is another instance where Timberlake effectively forgoes all subtlety in favor of a thoroughly resonant singular image. It's an invitation, Come dance with me, so our seduction can bloom. If it doesn't happen now, we may never make it happen. Don't delay, this song may be the only Moment, and once it passes we don't want to end up regretting what didn't happen....
Or, boiled down, Let's get sexy. And do it where they can watch.
4) Strawberry Bubblegum
|This one's gonna blow up.|
The Move: Hold hands and swing
So thus far, Justin has 1) defined what he's looking for in a partner 2) got himself appropriately done-up and looking the part for Game Time and 3) extended flirtatious invitations. Now comes 4) the actual bolt of lovestruck. It's still vague, so it's not love, not yet. But it's a heavy infatuation. It's innocent and ill-informed and blinding and real but ephemeral. The juvenile bubblegum imagery allows for unsullied innocent. Justin is 31, but falling for someone will make a 13-year-old out of any of us.
The specificity of the flavor evokes corner-store standards like Bubbleicious, which calls to mind the sorts of gum that pack bursts of fruit flavors in their candied centers. The shock of sugar erupts in a single explosive moment. It's a just morsel of a thing, and passes in an instant, but it's still exciting and entirely worth it.
Now, unlike that sort of gum, this song doesn't imply anything about losing taste after a few chews. And, in fairness, I think the gum described actually gets bland in less time than this song runs. But this song lingers in that single ecstatic moment of release and payoff, enjoying it for everything it's worth.
Things can only be new for so long. When they are, when potential is limitless and every unknown feels like it will have an exciting answer, that something is meant to be savored.
5) Tunnel Vision
“What was it, George? Birdwatching?”
“What, Lorraine? What?!”
The Move: Drink raised to lips while side-eyeing/ ice-grilling from across the barroom
Here's where The Singer's fascination transforms into fixation. Timberlake's music is generally super-inclusive, but this track allows itself an extended moment to wallow in his Male Gaze.
Does this song objectify the target in Timberlake's sights, his Lover girl? It hones in with such tight focus it's hard to totally ignore the sense that there's some leering going on. But maybe it's consensual leering? And if so, could one argue that a little bit of mutual objectification is a pretty fundamental part of attraction?
If Strawberry Bubblegum is about consequence-free attraction, then Tunnel Vision is about the weighty burden that quickly follows. Suddenly, it's compulsive. Things have gotten serious.
Timbo packs this song with such rich atmospherics you'd think the tunnel in question leads to an underwater level of Super Mario Bros., its synthetic layers lingering only slightly as they escape to the surface like bubbles. The presence of Magoo's better half on the hook is downright intrusive, like he's an omniscient stalker following JT's romantic exploits, making it more or less exactly like his performances in every one of Justin Timberlake's videos from Cry Me A River on.
I don't know if the looped vocals are saying “I dunno what you like” or “I didn't know she lied,” and I'm not seeking out the answer because I like that ambiguity. It plays both ways. Can you be “a little” obsessed? Is there an acceptable level of obsession with regards to romantic pursuits? Don't you HAVE to be a little obsessed with someone, especially in the early throes? Isn't that how you can tell the difference between meeting somebodies and meeting Someone?
Pretend I didn't say “obsessed.” Moving on...
6) Spaceship Coupe
The Move: One hand on the wheel, the other draped over her
Hoverboards notwithstanding, the future has arrived. By every conceivable, non teleportation/levitation metric, we've got all the things we imagined ourselves to have when we projected out Future Visions. We've got the video phones, the voice-activated and touch-screen computers, the non-white dude president, all of it. As such, we're a little in love with space. It's the final frontier, after all, and given that everyone younger than the Baby Boomers was born into a world where space and the moon had already sorta been conquered, we get a little entitled in our expectations. So it's nearly reasonable that Justin Timberlake, a man of style and means, would see a Sunday drive through the stars with his future-girl as an attainable goal, or, at the very least, a worthy image.
Speaking of means (and ways), JT has a lot of them, and by this point in the album's romantic arc he is ready to share them with his Lover. A lot's been said about the luxury branding of this album, and there's nothing more luxurious than taking your new crush on a cruise in your made-up-interstellar-whip. And, I mean, didn't one of the N'Sync guys pay some exorbitant amount of money to try and go to space? Was that a Backstreet man? Was it Freddie Prinze Jr. in Ultimates?
After the frantic chase that comprised the album's first half, JT is ready to relax for a spell. Every other chapter has happened out in the open, in public, and now there's finally an opportunity for some intimate alone time amongst JT's spoils. Out of the spotlight. Under the starlight.
It's been said that this album hits a lull in the middle, and I'd say that if that's true anywhere it's here. The starry outro feels strained, comparatively. It's not rushing to get anywhere, which might be the point, but still comes out a little meandering. It's a daydream, so it's a harder thing to share in from outside the bubble.
7) That Girl
“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody,
you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
The Move: Hop on a raised platform and serenade
To this point, JT's Singer has had a pretty broad view of his sought-after Lover. It was an open chase. Then there was a crush, sure, but crushes can be a dime-a-dozen. Bubblegum does come in packs, after all. And spending a nice Sunday together? Sure, that's intimate, but that's still a first-sleepover move. Here, though, JT's specificity snaps into frame.
The live-style staging of this song, with Timbaland taking the mic, MC-like, and introducing JT with his Tennessee Kids band, lets us know that this will be a performance piece. It's a rare instance where the listeners aren't meant to get up as a group and dance. Instead, the house lights are brought down and the spotlight directs our attention frontward. It's time for one man to take the stage and declare his love to one very special audience member. He's taking the risk, taking things public.
Up until now, every song has primarily been about trying someone out, or trying something out with someone. It's been a rehearsal, a series of tests to see what fits. Now a decision has been made. A partnership is in order, and this song is the very public statement made to cement that, to everyone within earshot.
It's entirely declarative; it's effectively a pointed finger, the “I'm With Stupid” t-shirt you wear when adjacent to your boo, free from boundaries.
And while it is meant to be performed in total openness, it only needs to be heard by one other. It's a highly exclusive promissory lullaby and a soothing assurance to a Lover that these feelings will not be fleeting.
That Girl is a song that ends on bended knee, assured that the payoff to the Singer's gamble guaranteed to pay out. A small box is opened. Tears well up, first in the Lover's eyes, then in eyes of the rest of the audience. Applause breaks out. Everybody wins.
8) Let the Groove Get In
Groove last spotted Getting In somewhere on the West Side.
The Move: Shamone is also a move
From its grooving premise to its expressive wail, Let the Groove Get In is where Timberlake allows himself to be his most Michael Jacksonest, maybe ever. Unapologetic, it fits in such perfectly harmony somewhere between Rock With You and The Way You Make Me Feel that I'm wary there wasn't some paranormal channeling or possession afoot.
After the last song, we know that his Lover has said “Yes,” and so it's time to celebrate. There's no more seeking in this song, it's time to partner up and boogie down.
It may be slightly out of the traditional order of things, but this track is perfectly crafted to suit the wedding reception. It starts with a knee, seated but rocking, that catches the rhythm. The knee straightens and soon the whole body is led to the dance floor, where a dance circle has quickly formed up, as people take turns sharing the spotlight.
C'mon (shamone?) everybody; join, sing, and dance and hand-clap.
The big horn blares, bringing with it an expansive Latin-swing energy. Drums bring a tribal element, which suits the scenario, as a wedding is, fundamentally, a ritualistic gathering of the tribes as a celebratory act of consolidation. It's love and family at its best, as big and broad and inclusive. And fun as hell.
As the song moves from rally to breakdown to closing fade-out, its Michealness only grows, until it is impossible to stop oneself from moonwalking, toe-standing, scarecrowing, finger-pointing-into-hand-snapping, and, eventually, inevitably, groin-grabbing.
If there's one thing JT learned from MJ, it's that whether rocking or grooving, it's best if it goes on all night long.
Right here all along.
The Move: Waltz
Mirrors is the masterpiece of The 20/20 Experience.
The concert of guitars and keyboard herald the arrival of the procession, as the beloved gathering rises to its feet and looks for the white dress. It's got big sound, a slow build, and a realization of love that's been earned through life's journey. The Singer's courtship of the Lover is over, they are finally on perfectly even ground, eyes locked, standing before everyone they know and care for. These are the album's vows.
Justin once again disregards subtlety, revealing the song's purpose with both the video and the repeated insistence that “you are the love of my life.” Not a lot of room for interpretation there. This is why every song before now has been sung, in the optimistic pursuit of this only maybe-possible destination. And where That Girl was about one man identifying someone as his partner, this song is actually about the fruits of that partnership, the breadth of a lifetime's worth of shared experiences. To have and to hold.
While this is the album's consecration, it is not strictly illustrative of the moment-of-the-plunge, or even the honeymoon period. It's a justification (natch) for everything that has come before it, and everything that will come as a result. When Timberlake dons the eye-examining contraption he sports on the album's cover, the one that grants him the Power of Sight, in either temporal direction, this is what he sees. Fundamentally, this is the 20/20. Look, he says, we made it. We shared our lives and our souls and our experiences and it's the greatest thing we could have done with any of them. This is what we sought, strove for, fought for, mourn when it passes. It's the love that defines us, that personal and unique thing that, by its very definition, is singular to each of us. It is as much a reflection of him as it is of her.
This mirror imagery suggests at least a hint of narcissism. But if true love means being seen, identified, recognized, known and willingly accepted, then JT's hint of narcissism is no crime, so long as the judgment is mutual. He wants to “look at us [Singer + Lover] all the time,” so sure, self is a huge component of that, but it's only as it feeds the appreciation of the greater common whole. There is no love of another without love of self. It's how we know what to look for.
The length of this song, the second single released, which foreshadowed the album’s absolute rejection of brevity, felt too long on first listen. Frank Ocean's similarly expansive Pyramids had earned its length with its tonal and narrative turn two-thirds of the way through, and this one really just stayed and hung around. Out of the context of the album as a whole it made no sense, but within it plays perfectly. The love of your life is something worth that extra examination.
From now on, if I am at a wedding, and this song isn't played, I will quietly place a divorce-bet with one of the bridesmaids. And I will win all of those bets. Because to not play this song at your wedding is to not understand why you're having a wedding.
It'll have to be the naïve bridesmaid. Who will, inevitably, love this song.
10) Blue Ocean Floor
If, out of context, you recognize this, then you are personally responsible
for James Cameron's insane level of wealth. And, therefore, Avatar.
The Move: Drowsily spooning
The album's most musically experimental track is also its most thematically ambitious. Up until now, we've been lead through a pretty straightforward account of a love story. Things have gone from station-to-station. Blue Ocean Floor, though, is about something more conceptual, like JT is exploring the radio signal that love broadcasts into the infinities.
Strings play backwards and forwards pervasively as Justin ruminates on love's half-life. He's mediating on the eternal aspect of companionship, how its reach extends well beyond the lifespan of either partner, or even each pairing's individual bond. That it existed, once, is what grants it agency.
If it was ever real, then there is an aspect that is forever real. It's the taste of something that can't be forgotten, even after death of the love, or lovers.
Also, let's not put it past Timberlake to make the last official track on his album a veiled reference to the final resting place of the primary plot device of James Cameron's Titanic. In fact, let's expect it of him.
So spacey it even meanders, Blue Ocean Floor stays committed to its pursuit of this same vaguely shapeless and ephemeral idea/l. It regains its semblance of coherence at the end, as the dream ends and reality snaps back into place, and you're left trying to remember what happened.
But you can't, not totally, because it's something that only made consistent sense in the midst of the experience.
That, Justin Timberlake says, is what makes love so fascinating, and so worthy a pursuit. In retrospect.
BONUS TRACKS AKA Stay On Target...
11) Dress On
THIS SEEMS LIKE A PERFECTLY CROMULENT IDEA
WITHOUT ANY POTENTIAL FOR DAMAGING REPERCUSSIONS
The Move: Fool around in the coat room
The album's arc has finished. In ten songs it has more than proven its point. But since this is a show, and the Justin fans have all been so patient, it's time for a couple of encores. Nothing revolutionary, just a couple of compliments of the house to complimentary a few of the album's more energetic moments.
Turning its focus once again to classy attire, Dress On serves as a nice companion piece to Suit & Tie. But where Suit & Tie was about putting clothes on, Dress On is about taking them off, or rather, forgoing the disrobement entirely in favor of satisfying the absolute urgency of lust. Ain't nobody got time for that.
Timbaland bats in Jay-Z's spot in the lineup, setting aside the role of omniscient narrator to take a swing at the album's second rap verse.
This song's characterization of lust doesn't preclude romance; it treats it as a central component to its bargain. It ignores the noise, and delights in the sexiness and certainty of knowing looks shared in an elevator ride up to the hotel room. It's what grown and sexy is meant to look like in execution.
12) Body Count
|The joy of my Body Count is in Zion.|
The Move: Anything and everything thus far unused from the repertoire
Keeping with the bonus-track-as-companion-piece motif, Body Count serves as a counterpart to Let the Groove Get In. It's a pure hype track, and the album's most retro, its kineticism hearkening to JT's Justified and N'Sync days.
It's all finger snaps and shimmies and enjoying the last drinks and last dances. Rack up dance-floor stats, but do it in a way that matters. It presents like a bit of fan service, an added bonus serving as an appreciative thank you to patient loyalists, who just want to dance, but needed to be inspired.
So, after six and a half years, that's Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience.
It kind of feels like a masterpiece.
Its arc, towards togetherness as the ultimate goal, culminating with its wedding motif, strives to make it timeless, something that will be relevant for as long as people stay hitching up and settling down. Its ambition outstrips whatever trademark Timbaland sound might pervade and date it, aiming for the ages.
So much of it is about the idea of love and the strength of our calls towards companionship. While it is never subtle in its imagery, it's deft in what a comprehensive case it made for love.
The album's journey, finding the love of one's life, proves its own point by illustrating why that pursuit is so worthwhile and fulfilling. In our lives, we hope, this will happen. And this, and this. Maybe, if the timing is right and the match is too, this will happen. If you're lucky, this will, too. And this is what we hope that the loves in our lives mean, after it's all said and done.
The reason I find myself feeling handsomer is because JT's work, like that of a few other crooners that serve as personal romance avatars- John Legend (new record in June!), Frank Ocean (channel ORANGE follow-up coming... good god, not soon enough)- is that its conviction reassures my values. I love it because when living inside its world I'm basically mainlining my own believe set. It's a map and a reassurance.
I believe in nothing like I believe in love (he wrote without reservation or embarrassment), and so does this guy. And it compels me and guides me and motivates me and wounds me, but I couldn't and wouldn't devalue or abandon it under any circumstances. I couldn't quit it like I couldn't quit food.
Of course I'm left handsomer. The just, honest pursuit of romance is what makes me the hero of my own story. I'm convinced it is the noblest pursuit of them all. And this 80 minutes reminds me.
Justin Timberlake sought to make a soundtrack for true love. I'm grateful he tried.