Oh, what’s up JT? Nice of you to join us over here in the music world again. You abandoned us in 2006 after Future Sex/Love Sounds–quick note: that was seven years ago, and seven years is roughly the age of a first grader, so we are now a first grader’s life away from the previous JT record–but that’s okay, because you’re back. You told us a few months ago that you felt “inspired” (or, maybe, a contract you signed obligated you) to make new music. Some people were stoked. Others weren’t. But regardless, here we are, and your third studio album The 20/20 Experience–currently streaming on iTunes–is set to hit shelves on Tuesday. It’s a hodgepodge of sonic trends over the past few years, and will probably take some time to fully absorb, process, and understand. But, because this is the year 2013 and this is the Internet, let’s prematurely evaluate the hell out of it, shall we?
Earlier this week, BuzzFeed’s Matthew Perpetua wrote how JT is packaging himself as a luxury brand, and questioned whether or not that type of product could be sold to a batch of consumers who would rather listen to Macklemore tell them that money doesn’t matter and how being yourself is okay–all you gotta do is just wave those lighters in the air and feel great about everything, man. (Quick sidenote: Fuck that song.) To a certain degree, Perpetua is right. Even before 20/20‘s lead single existed, just thinking about JT brought the words “suit” and “tie” to mind. The aesthetic he’s created over the past decade is one built upon coolness. JT’s badassness is based upon years of seeing him in the news not only as a musician, but as a celebrity who’s constantly setting trends, popping up on TV, starring in movies, getting photographed for GQ–or, in short, acting as a leader of the culture. And herein lays the problem with 20/20: It doesn’t come from a progressive cultural leader, but rather a stenographer of the past five years.
Take, for example, “Blue Ocean Floor,” the album’s closer. It’s a smooth, syrupy, and fuzzed out love song about escaping metaphorically into the ocean together. It’s a beautiful song, really, and shows off JT’s soaring range as a vocalist. But as Jon Caramanica wrote in the Times earlier this week, it sounds like a chillwave song from about three years ago. There’s nothing brave or forward thinking about this track, and it’s tacked on to the end of the record like an afterthought, almost like JT was going down a list of to-dos in order to create a critically acclaimed record: “Ballad with subtle electronic undertones, heartfelt lyrics, and one that people could compare to Frank Ocean? Check!”
Or for further proof, look at “That Girl.” At the start of the track, Timberlake is introduced in a “live” setting as part of a band called JT and the Tennessee Kids. They launch into a slowed down sex jam about being “in love with that girl.” It’s a perfectly pleasant (and very inoffensive) song. But, really, is this faux-Southern band “all the way from Memphis, Tennessee” really needed? What does this add to the record musically? Nothing, really. Instead, the gag feels like a cheap way for him to gain cred among the Black Keys/Kings of Leon crowd.
Oh, and don’t forget “Let The Groove In,” which is pretty much just a Pitbull song that really, really, really wants you to get your groove on (or commands you do so at least 300 times in the seven minute song).
What’s frustrating is that through this repurposing of sounds of the past half-decade, JT has seemingly lost who he is as a musician. He lacks focus. He lacks direction. The name of the record even nods to seeing things perfectly, but it’s evident JT’s vision has been clouded. The release of Future Sex/Love Sounds not only felt completely of the moment, but took hold of the cultural steering wheel and drove music in a new direction, setting the tone for things to come in the following years. 20/20 will not do this, no matter how bad we all want it to. Does that make it a bad album? Of course not. Timberlake is an incredible talent, and to call what he does “bad” is just foolish and hyperbolic. But it is disheartening to see someone who was once one of the most progressive musicians working look backwards, not forwards. Everything about 20/20 feels safe, calculated, and precise, like it’s fitting a mold and trying to appease every listener. Aside from the overarching theme of “love,” there’s nothing–sonically or lyrically–stitching the record together. And it’s incredibly forgettable.
But then again, this is the record that gave us “Mirrors,” so maybe I just need to shut the fuck up.