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Courtesy of RCA Records
The album cover of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience.
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★★★✩✩

The 20/20 Experience

Justin Timberlake

Released March 19, 2013

RCA

Expectations and comebacks are inseparable companions. When a star as famous as Justin Timberlake takes a temporary break from making music, coming back to the scene is never a piece of cake — the media wants to know the reason behind the hiatus and the fans expect fresh and promising music.

To be fair though, Timberlake did not disappear completely. The world hasn’t seen signs of a new album from him since his previous album FutureSex/LoveSounds, which was released in 2006, but in the meantime he was busy saving the world in “4 minutes” with Madonna, demystifying his feelings towards Mila Kunis in the film Friends with Benefits, and developing Facebook in The Social Network. Even though these smart career moves (perhaps intentionally) alleviated some of the media’s expectations, the recent release of his new album The 20/20 Experience still puts him in the comeback spotlight. With this album, Timberlake manages to bring some novelties to his music, but it is questionable whether these novelties will keep him in the spotlight.

Produced by Timberlake, his favorite sidekick Timbaland, and new collaborator J-Roc, The 20/20 Experience shifts Timberlake’s music from the pure pop and R&B of his previous two albums to a style that fuses these genres with soul and even some exotic world music sounds. Compared with his earlier songs, such as “SexyBack,” the new songs demonstrate music that is more than just a collection of simple three-beat club hits. The wide range of string, brass, keyboard and percussion instruments embellish the album and highlight Timberlake’s more mature side. So, why is it questionable that his new album will be an instant success?

If Timberlake had made the album shorter and worked more on his songwriting skills, The 20/20 Experience would most likely be a brilliant album. Moreover, the songs are unnecessarily long — seven minutes on average — so even the sheer brilliance of the musical composition cannot undo the dullness this causes. In pop-based music, brevity is usually a desirable attribute, because there is something appealing about songs that quickly and effectively convey their message. For reasons known only to him and his production team, Timberlake decided to disregard the common standard for this aspect of his songs.

Lyrics do not enhance the album’s quality either. When other pop stars such as the alternative Swedish diva Robyn and the underground Norway-native Annie write roguish and jocular lyrics, they skillfully and harmoniously blend them in with the music, giving their listeners a sense of their songs’ easy-goingness.

Timberlake does the opposite in this album: he combines music made with care and nonsensical lyrics, such as “If you’d be my strawberry bubblegum, then I’d be your blueberry lollipop.” The ever-present topic of Timberlake’s relationships in these lyrics is not an issue, but the comparison of his love life to candy products is, by any measure, corny.

Some of the songs in this album are worth mentioning though. The neo-soul opening track “Pusher Love Girl”, poetic ballad “Mirrors”, and the unorthodox dance hit “Let The Groove Get In” are examples of Timberlake taking advantage of his potential for personal growth in the music industry. In these songs, he thrives as a well-established singer who is able to veer between highly lyrical and fun, light-hearted musical escapades.

At the same time, one has to wonder whether these few successful ambitious attempts can pave a new pathway for Timberlake. It might be possible, but it seems as if he should have continued with his old well-formulated pattern of music-making instead of taking a risky path of musical maturation.

Whatever the future might hold for Timberlake, the new album remains trapped in a limbo — it does not fail, but it does not deliver fully either.

Highlight tracks: “Pusher Love Girl,” “Suit & Tie,” “Let the Groove Get In,” and “Mirrors.”