Justin Timberlake is, arguably, the current King of Pop. There is no one else who can rival his simultaneous singing (with sexy falsetto included) and smooth dancing skills, as well as look so sharp in a suit (I bet he just looked in a mirror for inspiration for ‘Suit & Tie’!).
Bad jokes aside, he is on top form and it feels like he never left, thanks to the new arrival of The 20/20 Experience. For seven years, we had to be content with seeing him in the likes of the truly awful Love Guru, the amusing Bad Teacher, the negligible In Time and the better-than-usual rom-com Friends With Benefits in which we had to savour his brief but brilliant rendition of Kriss Kross’ ‘Jump’. However, now we have another pop record in the league of FutureSex/LoveSounds; something that we had all but given up on.
The only song comparable in terms of radio popularity (so far!) to the infamous ‘Sexy Back’ is ‘Mirrors’, but it’s doing pretty well (and is classier by many measures too). Perhaps the only reason ‘Suit & Tie’ hasn’t become as massive as it had the potential to is it hit everyone into a state of shock that JT had very suddenly brought his sexy voice back. Both feature a pounding opener, with FutureSex/LoveSounds’ title track announcing itself before diving into a powerful beat, whereas The 20/20 Experience uses a sincere sounding string section for the first thirty sections before the beat drops and JT begins with ‘hey little mama’; the scene is most definitely set.
Both albums are, to some extent, concept albums about women, charting the highs and lows of one or more relationships as they progress. For example, ‘Mirrors’ is Track 9 on the new album and is a huge step away from ‘Suit & Tie’, Track 2, lyrically; the former reaches the lovestruck heights of ‘I couldn’t get any bigger with anyone else beside me’ compared to the previous song’s dancefloor admirations of ‘I can’t wait ‘til I get you on the floor, good looking’. Equally, FutureSex/LoveSounds incorporates two interludes and a prelude linked into other songs, a technique that is missing in JT’s new offering but replaced with longer songs. For example, ‘What Goes Around…/…Comes Around (Interlude) is the longest on FutureSex, at 7:28 (this obviously includes an interlude section as well as the main song), but the rest are around the 5 minute mark; on the contrary, ‘Mirrors’ is 8:06- no filler, all song (needless to say, the radio edit is quite cut down!) and there are several not much shorter. Both of these techniques are useful ways of exploring a wealth of ideas without the normal constraints. If Justin Timberlake can’t put out such fully-developed pop songs without a dull amount of repetition and get away with so many long songs on one record, then who can?
Elsewhere on The 20/20 Experience, ‘Don’t Hold the Wall’ is a bombastic song that has Timbaland all over it, with a percussive background and synthesised title hook that accompany Justin perfectly, while ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ is smooth and sleek, less gripping on a first listen but made better on the recent Jimmy Fallon live performance by the slick accompanying dance and brass additions (the brass section has been invaluable on all his recent live performances! More please!) The former is comparable to ‘Chop Me Up’ which actually features Timbaland (and the Three-6 Mafia), with the kind of heavy hip-hop feel that was massive seven years ago (although, as usual, few people pulled it off as well as Justin) and a very similar with the deep voice on the title hook. Comparisons could probably be made for every one of the songs, but that doesn’t lessen them in any way; rather, it strengthens the illusion that Justin is not moving away from his past musical life, but rather taking from it in order to grow and move forward for this new decade.
Due to the different stylings of each album in the capable hands of Timbaland- let alone the early noughties pop of Justified– it is likely that our choice of favourite Justin album will be split fairly evenly. I have no problem with this- both of his last two albums are well-shaped models of a great pop album- as long as we appreciate that he is very much still in his prime.