Justin Timberlake’s presence in a movie can hardly be described as a presence. More than dominating screens, he occupies space. He’s the noun (the thing that’s there), not the verb (the action), and film critics have stopped short of christening him a full-sized movie star (that honor goes to that other Mickey Mouse Club graduate Ryan Gosling). So when JT proclaimed a cinematic slant to his third solo album, it seemed sketchy. Timberlake as an actor is just amusing. Timberlake as an actor… on an album? Forget the edginess and urgency of FutureSex/LoveSounds, the best pop album of this generation. This time, the tailored Tom Ford suit’s worn in. It fits, it’s a staple, and people craving something fresher always think it’s too safe. Where FutureSex felt like change, this just feels good. As Timberlake promised, The 20/20 Experience—which should be titled Timbaland Presents Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience—has the orchestrated feel of a motion picture, even kicking off with a familiar, melodramatic feature-presentation burst.
At its best, 20/20 is a reliable product in a Justin Timberlake assembly line. You’ll find great records—the bedroom soul-trip “Spaceship Coupe” and “Tunnel Vision,” the track you’d say, “This again?” to, if it was released as a lead single instead of “Suit & Tie”—as well as some groan moments: “I can’t wait to get you home and get you in my veins,” a metaphor on “Pusher Love Girl.” Minus the innuendo, the reprise of “Strawberry Bubblegum” could be a Doublemint jingle; the song seems close to being overdone, yet somehow irresistible. And there’s the affected but still charming “That Girl,” the result of Timbaland digitizing ’60s vinyls. A subtle addition: the self-referential moments. The “pop” in “Strawberry Bubblegum” evokes N’Sync, while “hopped up on it” interpolates “FutureSex/LoveSounds.”
Because Timbaland beats can still move you, the production does just that when JT doesn’t quite. Timb, along with producer J-Roc, remains impressive when it comes to crafting sound from nothing—the feminine background moans on “Spaceship Coupe”—so much so that we’re spoiled when it comes to his novelty. He transitions Afro salsa on the Justin Estefan track, “Let the Groove In” (initially off-putting but then weirdly engrossing) into smooth disco. And “Mirrors” is something of a new-age wedding reception song, on an album that mostly revolves around fulfillment through love and dance.
The soundscape is so enveloping, it’ll have you Googling: “Has Timbaland scored a movie??” You’ll find this, a 2012 video interview with the producer backstage at the BET Awards. It has a little over 1,500 YouTube views. He mentions scoring, but his dig at Justin Bieber’s single “Boyfriend” got the headlines. Around the 3:45-minute mark, Jenny Boom Boom asks the music maestro the obligatory JT question: Can we get a refill? “You guys created such good music together,” she proffers. The rest of her words get minced, as Timbaland, ever muffled and agitated with the music biz, concurs: “…A feeling, right? It felt so good, didn’t it?”