Justin Timberlake Puts on a New Suit for the 20/20 Experience

Quin Nelson

Illustration by Asa Mease
Illustration by Asa Mease

It’s weird to think of Justin Timberlake as old, but in pop star years, he is a dinosaur. While he has stayed firmly implanted in the nation’s consciousness with movies and “Saturday Night Live” appearances, JT has not released an album since 2006, which in terms of music is a bygone era. When FutureSex/LoveSounds came out, Justin Bieber was 13 years old. Bieber, Lady Gaga and a whole new crop of pop stars have emerged in Timberlake’s absence. While it’s not easy to get back into pop music relevancy, Timberlake does so not by keeping up with the new kids, but by embracing who he is now.

Throughout the lead-up to Justin Timberlake’s new album, the imagery corresponding with his performances and videos has been uniformly retro. Hair slicked back, donning a suit while backed by “The Tennessee Kids,” JT cuts a Sinatra-like figure, a classic entertainer. And it’s a role that suits him, with his (sort of) decent movie career and great SNL hosting spots. By going the classic route rather than chasing relevancy through using dubstep or a 2 Chainz guest verse, Timberlake is able to craft an album that sounds comfortable in its own skin.

Timberlake’s new suit-and-tie persona anoints 20/20 as a classic album before it arrives, and the music almost lives up to the hype. The first thing that needs mentioning is that JT’s voice is still amazing, and that makes the album worth listening to on its own. It starts promisingly with “Pusher Love Girl,” the album’s best song, which rides the wave of rousing strings for a tremendously smooth eight minutes. It’s a good song, and producer Timbaland uses strings, horns and keyboard extensively throughout to establish Timberlake’s desired timeless vibe.

The songs are all given plenty of time, sometimes too much, to rise, fall and change, to flow organically. Each song has stages with noticeable changes in tempo, including “Suit and Tie” and “Strawberry Bubblegum.” This tempo never seems to be pushed, as the album just seems to flow along. Timberlake’s songwriting is inconsistent, but his voice is smooth enough to ride out the rough patches, such as when he awkwardly purrs, “Stop, let me get a good look at it/ So thick now I know why they call it a fatty” on “Suit and Tie.” He has moments of lyrical virtuosity as well, such as his hook on the subdued “Blue Ocean Floor,” in which he sings, “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore/ And I can’t hear you through the white noise/ Just send your heartbeat, I’ll go to the blue ocean floor.”

This music sounds like it isn’t in any hurry, because Timberlake isn’t in any hurry. The album has plenty of good songs, but none that are particularly ready-made radio singles. That’s fine, because Timberlake has all the fans he needs anyway. The album will sell well regardless of how good it really is, and fortunately for JT fans he does well here, making a quality album that is not enthralling but is plenty enjoyable in its own smooth and pleasant way.