It has been a long time coming—almost 7 years, in fact—since Justin Timberlake’s last musical tryst with FutureSex/LoveSounds. Until today, fans have been teased with buzz-worthy performances by the dapperly-dressed crooner at this year’s Grammy Awards—where the singer donned a tuxedo and, flanked by a backing band performed his first single, “Suit & Tie”—to last week’s SNL, his fifth stint on the show that boosted ratings to a 14-month high. In advance of the official release of his latest album, The 20/20 Experience, on March 19, JT chose to share it with his legion of fans, streaming it in its entirety for free on iTunes today.
Timberlake, ever the showman, has a knack for transforming into the living embodiment of his music. Gone is the shaved head and hipster vests, replaced by slick, straightened hair and finely tailored Tom Ford suits--an intentional nod to his new, Rat Pack-ish sound. Teaming back up with longtime collaborator and producer Timbaland, the 10-song album registers elements of his vocal stylings that brought the singer to fame—from falsetto professions of love reminiscent of Michael Jackson to silky smooth choruses. Compared to his previous work, however, these tracks have a slower burn, drawing heavily on ‘60s soul and R&B, and less on the hip-hop and pop foundations that signaled his initial transition from 'N Sync boy-bander to pop supernova.
The album opens with the dreamy orchestral strings of “Pusher Love Girl,” transporting listeners to the era of gangsters and dames, followed by a slow, rhythmic beat with dawdling claps, wherein Timberlake soulfully proclaims, “All I want is you, baby.” He revisits this nostalgic feeling throughout the album—channeling what his crooner contemporary Bruno Mars is trying to accomplish —with “That Girl,” which kicks off with the crackling recording of an announcer introducing “J.T. and the Tennessee Kings,” as if he's about to perform on stage in the ‘60s. A faster track from the rest of his songs, it’s full of whimsical guitar pluckings and horn accents.
Each song on average runs about seven minutes long, with the singer exuding a more sensual, seductive vibe in his music. The Timberlake/Timberland duo build the mood of the album—which does not shy away from sticky sweet, lovey-dovey lyrics—from the jazzy number “Strawberry Bubblegum,” that begins with Barry White-esque baritone complimented by piano riffs lo-fi beeps, to the buzzing overlay of “Don’t Hold the Wall,” that even incorporates mellodious African drumming with an Indian-inspired hook.
The speed of the album picks up with “Let the Groove In,” a dance-y number reminisicent of Gloria Estefan on muscle relaxants, to the most pop-centric--and most radio-friendly--anthem, “Mirrors.”
Although The 20/20 Experience showcases Timberlake’s impressive vocal stylings and the songs are expansive, employing creative and experimental musical progressions, the album is lacking in Timberlake’s signature pop vibe, and the tracks seem to drag. Then again, perhaps all pop music is heading the way of JT--back to its R&B roots, as singers like Frank Ocean have exhibited (albeit with more thriling results).