Music Review: Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience
The dead roamed the plains and taigas and deserts and they hunted and they died. When we dug up the ground to build our towns and cities we found their trapped bones, and we crushed what we found and mixed it into our roads and our furnaces and our engines. When we grew and our ranks stretched out to touch the compass points, we journeyed overland to find more of the trapped dead, and when we found them we made terrific weapons to shatter them free from rock that knew no possible threat. The dead were limite, and we knew this, but still we burned and melted and refined into a million iterations that lingered in the air and the water. One day a man burned a handful of the dead into soot and he brushed it over a reel of paper. Then he adjusted the apparatus, which held a needle the width of a hair that when properly calibrated barely touched the paper’s surface. He turned the crank and pulled the reel through its track, and he sang into a paper funnel that shivered at his voice. The needle lightly scored sinusoids across the trudging blackened ribbon.
This was the first sound recording but nobody knew how to play it back. 150 years later Justin Timberlake released The 20/20 Experience, Parts 1 & 2. By then we were a new kind of people, and we’d put sound into the air. The Internet and the iPod had detonated albums into a freewhirling shuffle of a trillion mp3s. We used the dead to make music, slicing a meticulous groove in hot vinyl and lasering pits and lands into treated plastic, but mostly we blasted our music into clouds with the dead’s carbonized ghosts. A slab of songs with granitey heft and 24-carat trim, The 20/20 Experience sounds like wealth, like its own musical-industrial complex, impressive and powerful and oblivious and too big to fail. We’ll require a solid half-decade minimum to understand it, to assemble a reasoned and measured compilation of Mediabase and Billboard stats and download numbers and hours blasting out of clubs and top 40 radio and wedding receptions and in cars cutting through the night before we can state something truly smart and informed about it.
The 20/20 Experience – 20 tracks total – two albums = the album’s big. Too big. At least a half hour too long. Released in halves, a few months apart, to spare Timberlake’s incipient empire of ears a death by crushing under 2.5 hours of heterodox prog-pop. The album is inconsistent and feels too sure of itself, like it has an arrangement with the judge. It’s a feature-length bender of genres and song structure, endlessly folding in on themselves and their influences. JT wants to be Michael Jackson, and like Jackson he wants to transcend race in his race up the charts. The only featured guests standing between us and him are elder statesman Jay-Z (“Suit & Tie” and “Murder”) and Drake, a rookie with a hell of an entourage (“Cabaret”). Hell, he asked Drake to lay down an extra 12 bars. Songs wend into distracted interludes and outros, especially in Part 2, definitely the shaggier half. These songs roll with more distraction than I can tolerate, but overlong albums find salvation in meticulous production and this one’s a beautiful, opulent non-exception. Ear candy. Ear aphrodisia. I hate how he stacks a soggy triple-decker of meandering jams halfway through Part 1 but they sound like mercury on marble. I love how “True Blood” whomps of the hell out of “Thriller” and “SexyBack” for nine straight minutes, how “Let The Groove Get In” kicks into coked-up hypersprint over African field recordings. And I hate and love that “That Girl” and “Drink You Away” drown country and soul in Timberlake and Co. (Timbaland/J-Roc)’s signature brew of elastic percussion and wonky samples. I hate how he strips down to acoustics and ambience on both halves’ final tracks, like he thinks I need a come-down day to clear my system and hydrate after the previous 9 songs; no, no! I want these halves to come to their end and surge to the clouds on “Mirrors”, to shower us in cheesy pop on “Not A Bad Thing”, but each half trips on its own hubris into a muddled, meh-worthy conclusion.
If this is JT’s triumphant pageant of himself, it comes in the wake of Timbaland’s army scorching his fiefdom’s borders out beyond the 2010s, saying pop was never not mine, not since you were in the cradle, and that ain’t changing. He’s the brutal general to Timberlake’s stellar and unequalled master of propaganda. His voice is thin and not so far removed from the N’Sync days; his lyrics are studded with clunkers (“girl if sex is a contest/then you’re coming first,” and don’t get me started on the absurd string of intoxicants JT can half-rap on “Pusher Love Girl”). Plus, he’s happily married now, so any love song is automatically lower-stakes. No more crying rivers, no more “my heart bleeded.” And yet he and Timbaland still dominate our charts and sales and airwaves and wireless routers and JT’s multi-threat status is as unquestioned as the walls. He doesn’t care. He’s Gatsby with the greenlit happy ending, and because “Mirrors” is the jam and because we are young or we want to be, and he hasn’t yet committed something horrible enough so we can gleefully consume him, we watch him rip across the sky like a titan, and we accept the frustrating magnetism of our worship. T22EP1&2 is a grand rare creation, the bloated and stubborn kind of which we’ll see fewer of as we grow old and stubborn and grumpy and impatient.
When we will recall this album we may remember it in its full fractal brilliance, or just the way it briefly eclipsed the airwaves for a few months. Ultimately we’ll absorb T22EP1&2 into our very selves the way our prehistoric cells partnered with upstart mitochrondria during the primordial orgy. Then we’ll become as the giant dead that lumbered and swarm before us, rose and fell and were left to be consumed and reborn into something greater. When we pass on we leave behind our endless gyres and exhausted landscapes and poisoned shale, but right now, this is a recording we can play. Do it. Do it now.