Last month, one waggish journalist responded to the excitement surrounding Justin Timberlake’s arrival in London by posting an old photo of the singer and his former paramour, Britney Spears, on Twitter. There they were, teen pop’s young dream, posing on the red carpet in 2001, having made the fateful decision to attend the American Music awards in matching stonewashed denim outfits. Resplendent not merely in a stonewashed denim suit, but a stonewashed denim Stetson, sunglasses and rapper’s gold chain, Timberlake looked the epitome of the clueless boyband doofus, making the most of his fleeting fame.
It’s an image worth bearing in mind while listening to ‘The 20/20 Experience’, not least its closing track, ‘Blue Ocean Floor’: seven-and-a-half minutes of backward tapes, echoing piano figures, sub-bass, sound effects and hazy strings. It’s fair to say that ‘Blue Ocean Floor’ is not a piece of music anyone in 2001 could have envisaged stonewashed-denim Stetson boy ever making. The clueless boyband doofus isn’t supposed to have any kind of career 11 years after the boyband’s split, let alone the kind of career Timberlake currently enjoys: burgeoning Hollywood success, so imperious in his stardom that he can leave a six-and-a-half-year gap between albums.
That is at least partly down to smartly aligning himself with the best producers and songwriters in the business: the Neptunes, whose fantastic single ‘Rock Your Body’ was intended for Michael Jackson, and Timbaland, responsible for the truly great bits of ‘The 20/20 Experience’s predecessor, ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’. The latter has been lying relatively low of late, perhaps preferring to sit out an era in which the kind of artists who would once have come calling for his visionary productions seem happier to throw in their lot with the identikit pop-rave merchants, but ‘The 20/20 Experience’ restates his case in remarkable style: on purely sonic terms, the album is a genuine tour de force.
Its signature sound is based around knowing fragments of various classic soul styles: a booming Isaac Hayes-ish voiceover, the luscious string and horn arrangements that surrounded the Delfonics and the Chi-Lites, the squelching analogue synthesisers found on Stevie Wonder’s early-70s albums, a squealing, Eddie Hazel-like guitar solo. But there’s nothing reverential or retro about its approach: it maroons these sounds amid a mass of disconnected, echoing samples — snatches of piano, distorted voices, buzzing electronics — and unexpected beats. Elsewhere, he ventures further afield: the astonishing ‘Let the Groove Get In’ features an electronic approximation of a batucada rhythm, overlaid with ferocious afrobeat horns.
The sound of ‘The 20/20 Experience’ is complex, rich and rewarding. It rigorously avoids every one of the tired sonic cliches in which pop-RB is currently mired: there’s not a hint of a dubstep-inspired bassline, nor a house-inspired breakdown. Nevertheless, there are problems. The songwriting isn’t bad — Timberlake can really write a chorus — but nor is it good enough to warrant the sheer length of the songs: the shortest track on the album lasts five minutes, while two tip over the eight-minute mark.
Then, there are the album’s lyrics, which are awful. It’s not that the lyrics are exclusively about sex; it’s that Timberlake writes about it in a way that suggests he’s desperate to add some kind of musical equivalent of the Bad Sex award to his six Grammys and four Emmys. “We’'re making love like professionals,” he sings. Hang on: professionals? What does that mean? Utterly dispassionately, for a pre-arranged fee?
There’s a terrible moment midway through ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’, where the listener slowly becomes aware that “strawberry bubblegum” appears to be a metaphor for his partner’s private part. Timberlake is a young man recently married, and he’s entitled to celebrate that any way he chooses, although you do wonder if the lady wouldn’t prefer, say, a bunch of flowers to a song, broadcast to millions, comparing her private part to a piece of Hubba-Bubba. At least he dishes out something similar to himself: his private part apparently resembles a “blueberry lollipop”.
It’s a bold soul that claims this kind of thing doesn’t mar their enjoyment of ‘The 20/20 Experience’: it’s definitely harder to concentrate on the rich inventiveness of the sound when there’s a man comparing his wife’s private part to some bubblegum in a falsetto voice over the top of it. Equally, it would be churlish to claim it ruins it. Despite its flaws, ‘The 20/20 Experience’ is a genuinely adventurous pop album in a world of will-this-do? The days of the denim Stetson seem more distant than ever.