Review Round-Up: Justin Timberlake's “The 20/20 Experience”

Review Round-Up: Justin Timberlake's “The 20/20 Experience”
Singer Justin Timberlake
(Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

The day pop music fans have been waiting for since late January is finally upon us: the official release of Justin Timberlake’s third studio album, “The 20/20 Experience.” Since announcing the album the same day he debuted its first single, “Suit & Tie,” we’ve been wondering how the singer-turned-actor-turned-singer-again would mark his return to music after seven years in the wilderness known as Hollywood, and how he would follow up his second album, the flawed but beloved “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” Considering the lukewarm press “The 20/20 Experience” has received in advance of its release, it’s not surprising that the first reviews are mixed – there are some raves, resigned shrugs, to politely worded putdowns. Here’s a sampling of what critics have had to say. 

Pitchfork's Ryan Dombai gave the album the website's covetted “Best New Music” designation and credits Timberlake with using his fame to do something genuinely different:

“The same can be said for the rest of 'The 20/20 Experience,' which has Timberlake seamlessly conflating the last 40 years of pop, soul, and R&B into a series of warping seven-minute songs that shamelessly extol the joys of music and marriage.”

The Guardian's Alexis Petridis called the album's production "a genuine tour de force" but found its lyrics... lacking:

“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.”

The New York Times' Jon Caramanica pointed out that albums aren't really the best venue for Timberlake's talents:

He sounded more at home and vocally present in those moments than when singing his new songs, or almost anywhere on 'The 20/20 Experience.' Forget the album; go see the show, or whatever else Mr. Timberlake applies his talents to. He’s learned how to be a musician who has no need to make records, the perfect solution to the modern economy.

The Los Angeles Times' Mikael Woods felt that while the album had its fair shair of flaws, Timberlake's overwhelming talent made it worth listening to:

“But on an album whose title apparently references the accuracy of hindsight, that deep-read content feels ancillary to Timberlake's overall idea that love -- and old-fashioned talent -- can prove everlasting. He'll go away again, no doubt, and then he'll return to shine once more.”

Gawker's Rich Juzwiak declared the album “as mediocre as we knew it would be,” writing that while the album is never bad, it was also never anything more than “nice”:

This is the kind of album whose mellow, nothing-more-than-nice first single is puzzling until you hear the rest of the album and realize that it's the most commercial pop on a collection whose musical m.o. is to be nothing more than nice. 'Suit & Tie,' at least, has a sense of spunk, which is more than can be said for most of '20/20.' The album sounds like a conscious attempt at musical maturity that is never quite earned or fully realized.

As for us, we think “The 20/20 Experience” is totally fine – an extremely pleasant, though not particularly memorable 70-plus minutes of futuristic R&B punctuated by the occasional nostalgic flourish. This will not go down as a highlight in Timberlake’s oeuvre and if it’s the low point, there could be worse things. We’re just glad that it isn’t a rehash of “FutureSex/LoveSound,” an album that we loved despite its myriad flaws. Here, Timberlake, with the help of “FutureSex” collaborator Timbaland and his protege Jerome “J-Roc” Harden, pushes himself musically. And while the hooks may not rank with his best, they’ll still get stuck on your head – we do agree with many of the critics that the lyrics are frequently uninspired. The album may be lacking in hits like the epic “Cry Me a River” or the insanely catchy “SexyBack,” but it does have a genuinely great song in “Tunnel Vision.” It’s the sort of record that’s probably a half-hour too long, and if anyone out there wants to edit out the three-minute fade outs on most of these seven-minutes plus songs, we’d be down to listen.

Fortunately, those wondering what’s next for Timberlake’s musical career won’t have to wait another seven years to find out. Yesterday, the singer confirmed that a follow up, the second part of “The 20/20 Experience,” is coming. Will it be any better? Who knows, but hopefully it’ll be shorter.