Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience” is already number 1 on iTunes and no one has heard it. (It’s number one on amazon.com, for just $7 bucks.) The album will be released a week from Tuesday. Timberlake was featured on an all-star “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, and appears all week on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
Six years after his second album, Timberlake sounds great. He moves great. His instrument playing is questionable. But he’s an accomplished showman. And he’s made the best new Michael Jackson we could hope to have. Timberlake was born in Memphis, but trust me, this album has nothing to do with the gritty soul from that fabled city. It owes more to Gamble and Huff’s silky Philly sounds and pastichesof everything Timberlake has ever heard on the radio.
But did it really take eight — eight– writers to writer “Suit and Tie”? That’s seven plus Jay Z, who threw in the rap. Eight? Really?This is why: “Suit and Tie” is “borrowed” itself, from Sly Slick & Wicked’s mid 70s’ groove “Sho Nuff (You Really Love Him):
And then there’s the proportionate length of th ealbum. “20/20” lasts a staggering one hour and ten minutes but only includes 10 songs– that’s bloat, no way ’round it. How much homage can you write before it starts repeating itself? So “20/20” can only go so far.
Eight of the ten tracks last seven or eight minutes, and believe me, they are not “Hey Jude.” “Suit and Tie,” at 5:26, is an exercise in brevity. There is no conceivable reason why “Mirrors” should clock in at 8:05. It’s not like Timberlake is Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana, great instrumentalists who work would extend the length of a record. It’s just filler. Cut these songs in half and you’d get great little singles.
Timberlake and his myriad producers/writers were smart though: they made a whole album out of the song “What Goes Around Comes Around,’ the best track from “FutureSounds/LoveSongs.” But they weren’t perfect. “Spaceship” sounds like a remake of one of Timberlake’s comedy songs with Andy Samberg, with a very Stylistics-“Betcha By Golly Wow” ending.
The “20/20 Experience” reminds me of an album from a Canadian group called Klaatu, back in 1977. A rumor went out that it was really the Beatles, under an assumed name. For a few days, it seemed like it could really be the Beatles. “The 20/20 Experience” sounds like Michael Jackson in that way. But it also borrows heavily from every other classic R&B trope you could think of, from the Bee Gees to Sly and the Family Stone to Quincy Jones and the Brothers Johnson.
It’s as if the many producers involved fed all the greatest moments from soul music circa 1968 to 1975 into one of those big ol computers on “Get Smart.” And the computer spit out “The 20/20 Experience.” As I write this, scientists are working in the lab trying to decode the DNA of “Strawberry Bubblegum.” Sly Stone is the father, and the Brothers Johnson are the mothers. Or brothers.
Hey: this works for everyone in 2013. It’s not stealing, exactly. It’s heavy influence. Bruno Mars “re-created” Sting in his hit “Locked in Heaven.” For people my age, it’s like hearing Madame Tussaud’s come alive. For newcomers to music, it will sound fresh as a daisy. But listening to “20/20” I felt a little like an archeologist.
And it does. Justin sports a lot of rhythm. And a wonderful falsetto. It’s also clear from his TV appearances that he’s smart and fast, a gifted mimic who picks up everything quickly. So he’s processed this sound he knows, and obviously loves. There’s nothing new in what he’s doing, and you learn nothing about him at all from listening to the songs. He’s merely a vessel, and a gifted re-imaginer. He’s very much like Madonna. Like her, he has excellent ear and exacting taste.
A hit? No doubt. And the tour with Jay Z will be a hit? Lots of Grammys next January 2014? It boggles the mind. After hearing Frank Ocean or Miguel or D’Angelo, or Anthony Hamilton, it’s hard to believe anyone would call this authentic soul. But it’s pop and it’s fun, and at this stage in the decline of the Empire, we have to be grateful for what we can get.