I am fully prepared to admit that as a 29-year-old bro, Justin Timberlake is one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) performers of our time.
For the release of his new album, I had to consult the only other man I knew who had been to minimum four JT-related concerts. Featured Baltimore Post-Examiner writer, and my friend since the third grade, Andrew Cannarsa fit the bill. We’ll be going back and forth email style. We started emailing each other late last week before the album was released, leading up to our initial thoughts on Tuesday, release day.
Let the banter begin.
AC: So, here we are, in March 2013, and Justin Timberlake has finally released his third solo album, The 20/20 Experience. While the wait from September 2006’s megahit FutureSex/LoveSounds (Barack Obama was then a relatively-unknown Illinois Senator, LeBron James was a three-year NBA player with the Cavaliers, and the iPhone was still in pre-production) has felt like an eternity, it’s also amazing how it seems like yesterday that “My Love” and “LoveStoned” were on repeat on every radio station and on every college student and 20-something’s iPod.
However, much has changed in Timberlake’s world. Since the then-25-year-old released FS/LS, he’s pushed an acting career with a couple highs (as Napster founder Sean Parker in The Social Network) and a few lows (The Love Guru, Friends with Benefits), grown into an iconic Saturday Night Live host and guest (“It’s my d*ck in a box!), and built his business portfolio (investing in MySpace, hawking expensive tequila and designer jeans, and who knows what else). Oh yeah, he also married actress Jessica Biel, one of a handful of women to ever be considered to be the “Sexiest Alive” at the time.
As someone who’s been a shameless fan-boy of Timberlake since his curly-fro-and-jean-jacket days leading ’NSync, I’m obviously thrilled that he’s back with new music, non-stop live performances and appearances and a tour later this summer. But I’m still trying to figure out what to think about 20/20 and how his musical comeback has played out. Your initial thoughts on JT’s return, and what have you liked/disliked about the album (which streamed for free on iTunes since March 11, and was available for purchase March 19)?
REED: I always complain that the main reason I don’t enjoy Beyonce that much is because she has NEVER gone away for an extended period of time since she stepped into the scene with Destiny’s Child. She is constantly touring, acting, putting out new music, endorsements, etc. Much like songwriting, if you have a really cool instrumental going, or vocal melody, you can’t just repeat it throughout the song. You need to pick and choose where you use it, and take it away, and carefully bring it back. You need to make the listener desire for that part to return, and smack them in the face with it when you do.
It got to the point that I thought he really might not do another album for five more years.
Sure, he guested on a few tracks that were nice (Ciara’s “Love and Sex and Magic,” Timbaland’s solo albums), but not one, true solo track.
Honestly, I was shocked when he tweeted that video of the single shot of him walking through the hallways of (maybe?) his house, into a studio, and announcing his comeback.
I compare it to an old girlfriend who had broken up with you, and you hoped for years in the back of your mind that you would get back together. Eventually you move on and love single life, but then BAM, she wants to get back together! To quote John Tuturro in Mr. Deeds, “You underestimate my sneakiness.”
I only streamed the album once, but if I had the option, I wouldn’t have skipped any of the songs.
- Multiple 8+ minute songs, which is risky but I like.
- I don’t know why he has a song called “That Girl.” Seems lazy.
- Some of his lyrics are just brutal, and he’s clearly counting on the beat and his flow instead of taking his time with meaningful/introspective/storytelling words. I don’t get it. We know he can write good songs lyrically (sometimes), but why does he need to write ANY songs about “Hey I’m having a good time, you should too,” or “Let’s all dance it up,” or “Wow you sure are a hot girl, let me touch it, oh I burned my hand.” I never liked “Rock Your Body” unless I was drunk and at a party.
- He’s clearly evolved musically. Song structures are much different. He went away from the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure multiple times, which is a huge step. You don’t need to structure songs like that anymore, if your melodies and lyrics are strong.
I do need more time with the album though before we can really dive in, track by track. But here’s the big question, which JT himself made a joke about during the opening monologue of his recent SNL hosting.
Why do people not like “Suit & Tie?”
AC: “Suit & Tie” is a good place to start, and I think your point about his six-plus year solo hiatus since FS/LS is right on, in that it put his first 20/20 single under heavy, heavy scrutiny. As fans, when we heard in early January he was coming back–and with a new single coming in days–we expected something big.
The thinking being:
1) JT is finally back, so he must be ready to unleash the mother of all pop/R&B tracks that will carry us through 2013 and be a timeless hit from now on.
2) It’s been more than six years, this better be good.
So while we floated through what is a pleasing-to-the-ears track (except for the Jay Z verse, jammed in there for numerous commercial reasons), “Suit & Tie” does nothing to really make you rock to the beat the way “SexyBack” and “My Love” did in 2006 and 2007. When I first heard it, it reminded me of a track at the end of an R. Kelly album from about 10 years ago. It just seemed very forgettable to me, to your point that the lyrics are rough. “Going out so hot, just like an oven.” Ovens are hot, Ben.
All of that said, as he has performed the song live the past two months, and the more I’ve listened, the more I like the JT-only portion of the song, and the more I really can’t stand Jay Z’s contribution (You have to put on your Tom Ford tuxedo to party with us!) and his awkward chemistry with Timberlake on stage.
Check out this clip from the 2006 MTV Video Music awards, when Timberlake was hyping FS/LS. “SexyBack” had been on the radio for several months, and while the song was weird and different at first, soon we were all on board with JT and producer Timbaland as party hosts.
Jump ahead to the 2:20 mark. Crowd goes insane for “SexyBack” and he and Timbaland could not be having more fun:
Then check out “Suit & Tie” from SNL, with Jay meandering on stage at the 3:25 mark:
Maybe JT knows “Suit & Tie” isn’t the best work he’s done, but it’s the best song to promote the album and reenter the music fray?
REED: I’m really not sure artistically why “Suit & Tie” was the first single. I think it’s a third or fourth single at best. I remember listening to FS/LS, and the first time I heard “Summer Love” in Fall of 2006, I instantly knew that would be his 4th or 5th single in Summer of 2007, which is was.
I can tell you why “Suit & Tie” happened: purely for economic and marketing reasons. He was totally prepared for it not to go over well, I don’t think he cared. The song totally sets up the Legends of Summer tour with Jay Z (which I don’t want to go to because ticket prices are ridiculous, and I don’t want to pay that much to see almost ANY rapper live, even one of the GOAT). He clearly had major marketing plans with Budweiser and Target. I don’t get that at all. He must have made a ton of money from those deals, but why? Years ago he made the “I’m Loving It” tune for McDonald’s, and then “Winner” with Jamie Foxx for the NBA playoffs. He doesn’t need the money. He’s done this type of ad campaign before. Everyone knows who he is. His album will no doubt be the biggest sold of this year, and probably the next, and the next.
Still, I agree with your analysis of “Suit & Tie” musically. It grows on you over time. The Jay Z verse should clearly be cut in half, and it’s a very, very solid album track, but barely a single.
AC: Getting past “Suit & Tie” on its own, overall, I like the album and how JT and Timbaland set out to create a “start-to-finish” listen. I know a lot of musicians and groups say their work is great “beginning to end,” because they don’t want to undersell any of their songs, but streaming the entire album, without breaks on iTunes was smart. It encouraged the listener to take in 20/20 from the beginning and enjoy the transitions and sequencing from song-to-song. It’s not really a “single-heavy” album the way FS/LS ended up, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Stand-out songs for me, so far, other than “Mirrors,” are the three-track arc of “Don’t Hold the Wall,” “Strawberry Bubblegum,” and “Tunnel Vision.” There’s A LOT happening in these three songs; I think you get the best of Timbaland’s classic, layered production (reminds me of Nelly Furtado’s album, Loose, as well as Timbaland’s Shock Value, both which came out in 2006 around the same time as FS/LS), as well as the best of JT’s vocal skills and personality in those three.
Not so great, for me, are “Spaceship Coupe” and “Blue Ocean Floor,” but that’s only after a few listens.
Also, after all of this hype for the 20/20 release, we get a follow-up coming soon. The album put out on March 19 is only Part 1 of 2. We get another 10 songs from the Timberlake-Timbaland duo later this year.
Can you handle that?
I’m impressed by all of this, especially that JT was working on music for most of 2012, and that his inner circle kept it so quiet. The calendar turns to 2013, and all of a sudden it’s, “JT is back, here’s a single and a video and a summer stadium tour with Jay Z, and the Grammys and SNL and a week on Jimmy Fallon, and oh yeah there’s a part 2 to the album coming late this year.” It’s a lot even for the most-dedicated fans to absorb.
REED: You’re crazy on “Blue Ocean Floor.” That song and “Strawberry Bubblegum” are the clear standouts to me. Musical evolution is evident in those two tracks, mainly from the ambient synths to the light percussion. Very Frank Ocean-esque. (Did you know I like him?)
I loved both of those tracks. I did find some of the other tracks forgettable on the first listen, but it’s hard to really dig into every song on an album so anticipated. I imagine I’ll garner an appreciation for every track down the line, similar to a Will Ferrell movie that bombs in the box office, but thrives on cable TV.
My new one?
A single CD changer, and when I popped in 20/20 it was the first time I used it. I hoped that the liner notes would have something cool in it, but it was nothing more than a series of pictures of JT in various poses, along with production credits.
I can’t complain because the album was only $9.99, but I would gladly pay more for bonus tracks via iTunes. I had to rip all the songs to my computer, and for some reason it couldn’t recognize all the tracks to name them! What?
Anyway, bonus tracks. Forgettable.
There’s a reason they are bonus tracks. Just like there’s a reason why DVD’s include “alternate endings” and “extra scenes.” They always suck. “Dress On” and “Body Count” are nice songs to play in the background of a party, but I don’t imagine I’ll be playing them over and over like “Strawberry,” “Blue,” and “Mirrors.”
BTW, did you see the target commercial, where they have a whole bunch of people in a row, Jackson 5 style, singing “Mirrors,” and then JT comes out to surprise them. It’s hilarious because you can tell that some of the people singing think this is their big break. My girlfriend thought it was a commercial for “Glee” until she actually paid attention to the singing.
AC: Well, at least we disagree on something. If anyone’s still reading this, thanks and congrats for making it this far.
I’ll wrap things up by saying this: Having Justin Timberlake back in the music game is a good thing. The album is good, not great, but I’ve always said he is a much better performer and entertainer than he is a songwriter or music producer. Some songs might have lame lyrics or be overproduced, but it almost doesn’t matter what he’s singing, because his stage presence and live production is top-notch.
And, we bitched and moaned for so long about him bidding his time acting, we should enjoy the music before his next multi-year break…
(Puts headphones in and plays “Mirrors.”)
Extra Notes: I put out a new song this week with some friends all the way over in the UK. “NBMH” ft. Architekt is a two-step, electrornb song. You can find out more about Architekt at SoundCloud.