Music review: Justin Timberlake’s old-school groove

By Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times

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This CD cover image released by RCA Records shows "The 20/20 Experience," by Justin Timberlake. (AP Photo/RCA Records)

The 20/20 Experience

Justin Timberlake

It’s not hard to figure out why Justin Timber­lake has been pushing an old-school vibe in the run-up to his third studio album, The 20/20 Experience. He performed at the Grammys and on Saturday Night Live wearing a tux, leading a similarly clad band behind Art Deco music stands.

“As long as I got my suit and tie, I’m-a leave it all on the floor tonight,” he sings in Suit & Tie, the snazzy lead single. “All pressed up in black and white, and you’re dressed in that dress I like.”

True, the singer favors any era — the Jazz Age, early-1960s Motown — where formal wear ruled. But with his first album in more than six years, Timberlake is reminding us that as quickly as music moves today, great style persists.

It’s an important point given that since his last album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift have taken over his old spot at the center of pop. And then there’s that other Justin — Bieber.

Timberlake, 32, hasn’t been invisible: He was acting, designing clothes and taking part in a relaunch of Myspace, of all things. But it’s been long enough since he identified as a working musician that The 20/20 Experience feels like an attempt to reclaim Timberlake’s space in a deeply altered landscape; it makes a play for timelessness at a moment of unabashed ephemerality.

Partly that means doing a bit of time travel. Working with producer Timbaland (who also helmed the bulk of FutureSex/LoveSounds and several tracks on 2002’s Justified), Timberlake punches up vintage styles with modern touches, as in That Girl, which marries Al Green’s lithe Memphis R&B to a percolating drum-machine beat, and Suit & Tie, which interrupts a lush Philly-soul groove for a hip-hop breakdown.

Other songs boast similarly elaborate structures with multiple movements, like those in the opener, Pusher Love Girl. Here Timberlake follows a sweeping orchestral intro with a funky main section and then an extended coda in which he raps with surprising authority; later, Strawberry Bubblegum metamorphoses from a chilly electro jam into a warm organ vamp a la Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life.

In the ultra-busy Let the Groove Get In, he and Timbaland throw in even more — it’s basically Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ as remade by the house band in Fela!

You might take the presence of these vivid sounds and textures as a sign that Timberlake is grasping at attention spans that have shortened since he was last making records. But the confident, assured way he deploys them — all but three of the disc’s 10 tracks stretch past the seven-minute mark — reflect ambition more than desperation; he’s never in a hurry to show you everything he can do, even when a little speed might have improved the music, as in the drifting and very pretty closer, Blue Ocean Floor.

Timberlake holds The 20/20 Experience together too with lyrics that stay resolutely on the topic of romance, be it the sex-as-drug metaphors in Pusher Love Girl, the sex-as-candy metaphors in Strawberry Bubblegum or the sex-as-interstellar-force metaphors in Spaceship Coupe.

Several songs suggest that he’s been thinking about celebrity. Cameras and reflective surfaces turn up in Tunnel Vision and Mirrors, while That Girl finds him insisting, “I don’t pay attention to the talk,” as only a veteran of tabloid coverage could.

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. That’s what stars do.

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