When I first heard The 20/20 Experience, much later than everyone else, I was awe-struck. Its style was something that Justin Timberlake had been in proximity of, but never fully embraced.
The previous two albums by Timberlake showcased pop, R&B, and even some electronic sounds. But none of them had the smooth neo-soul, retro sound down quite like 20/20 does, managing to out-do everything on the radio without sounding like anything else there.
I immediately declared it, in my mind, to no one, as Timberlake’s best album. I was disappointed, stunned even, to learn that the media at that time in 2013, did not feel the same way. The first album of the double release seemed to generate more positive reviews than the second (also, user reviews were considerably more favorable), but the criticism of the songs are baffling to me. Don’t talk smack about “Strawberry Bubblegum”! How dare you have an opinion different from mine?
Critics lauded FutureSex/LoveSounds at the time of its release, and beyond. It was innovative, brought Justin to the forefront of pop and R&B, matured his sound, and showed off Timbaland’s slick production skills, plus all of the radical influences he and JT had absorbed. It was the perfect storm.
But I’m here to tell you they’re all wrong. 20/20 is Timberlake’s best album by far. Here’s why.
FutureSex/LoveSounds: Nostalgia Is A Strong Aphrodisiac
First of all, have you listened to FutureSex recently? I mean, like really recently. Besides jamming to the mega hit “SexyBack” or remembering how good “My Love” actually is, if you fired up the album right now, you would also notice how incredibly dated the production is. Electronic/dance music has found its way into the heart and track of many popular, mainstream songs of today, and has done so for awhile now, but it sounds so painfully 2006 on this album. Yes, it was innovative for the time, and it was a great move for Timberlake’s career, but I said what I said. It’s old.
At the time of its release, I loved this album. I played it so much I got sick of it. But, hindsight is 20/20, and I find its flaws more glaring than ever, and the songs less replayable than they used to be. Lyrically, the album is about having fun and getting laid, primarily. Compared to the more mature and refined approach of similar topics on 20/20 Experience, it sounds pretty juvenile. We’ve all been through a phase in our lives when something like “Summer Love” would have been our anthem (falling in love with a stranger on the street, i.e. wanting to bang), but a lot of the imagery portrayed in FutureSex is cringe-worthy at best, and downright gross or stupid at worst (e.g. “Chopped and Screwed”, the “LoveStoned” prelude). Many of the songs implicitly treat women like they are wildlife being hunted, and while that’s fun to dance to, it makes for shallow and one-dimensional experience. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing? It’s not. But this album is hardly the best of his career, like some might have you believe.
A More Sophisticated Experience
The 20/20 Experience, by comparison, also has themes of love and sex, with some of that “let’s have a good time” vibe, too. But it’s far less about partying and sexual conquests and more about enjoying yourself as an adult who defines “party” in a much different way now (“Take Back the Night”, “Let The Groove Get In”, “Suit & Tie”, even). The art of seduction is less about calling a girl a “model, except she’s got a little more ass,” and more about calling a woman beautiful no matter what she wears, or doesn’t wear (“You Got It On”), or enticing a woman to leave a bad relationship and be with someone better (“Don’t Hold the Wall”). This is something you’d expect from someone of JT’s age and experience–a type of refinement and maturity that FutureSex can’t, and isn’t trying to, pull off.
While love and sex seem to be topics both albums share, the tone and approach of 20/20 Experience is far more palatable and well-written. They didn’t perfectly nail this on 20/20, but some of the more questionable lyrics, on tracks like “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”, and “Murder” are more tolerable and subtle (there is no excuse, however, for the “coochie coo” line in “TKO”, especially how it’s repeated to infinity). Additionally, “seduction songs”, like “Strawberry Bubblegum”, “Spaceship Coupe”, and “You Got It On”, aren’t sleazy or predatory. Not to mention that slick, old school soul sound takes the edge off anything mildly offensive or possibly blush-worthy (but in case you hadn’t heard, all of the original soul singers were big, ole horndogs, too–for instance: “Let’s Get It On” is one of the most famous songs of its era or genre).
Some complaints about 20/20 Experience, even in the most glowing of reviews, say the songs are unnecessarily long and self-indulgent. I find that length is just one of the ingredients that make 20/20′s songs work, as they evolve right before our ears. If they felt monotonous (“Let the Groove Get In”, which, for all its uniqueness, doesn’t change much throughout its course), that would be a sin. But that’s not the case. Most of the songs carry the richness and depth of a multi-layered composition, where many songs sound like the courtship, commitment, and long, fulfilling marriage of two songs into one beautiful union. Such a union deserves all the minutes necessary to do it justice.
While plenty of professionals and fans alike would disagree (and have), I would say there are no bad songs on 20/20. I’d say there are no F tier songs. There are a couple C or D ones that I’m not fond, but none of them are total bombs. They all do enough things right to be credible, and more importantly for a giant, double album, listenable. Timberlake and his team of producers were smart about how they approached these songs, for the most part.
And what I can say about the C’s and D’s of the album is that they’re certainly not boring. Usually, it’s a case of Justin trying to do something new and maybe not pulling it off. That’s not the worst crime. At least he tried. I can admire that more than some of the cringe moments of its predecessor.
With FutureSex, I would have once argued that every song was a banger. At face value, they are all still fun, tight songs that are purposeful in their own way–even if that purpose is just to fucking party and hit on a hot girl. It does have two songs that hold up to this day: “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and “Let Me Talk to You / My Love” are my two favorites now that have most endured the test of time. You could make a case for “SexyBack” because of its popularity and sheer dance hit success, but I find that one is easier to listen to in the right mood. However, with the type of production and lyrical content that I’ve already touched on, I could distill my complaints about this album to one word: one-dimensional.
On the other hand, 20/20 isn’t one of anything. It jumps from genre to genre without feeling disjointed. The songs feel polished, carefully crafted. Though it only took 20 days to record, it’s unclear how long it took to write and compose the songs. JT may not be able to pull off all these genres or styles entirely, but he tries and he tries convincingly, even if the result is only pseudo-successful (“Take Back the Night”, “Only When I Walk Away”).
A track listing, with tiers, seems like the most complete and best way to talk about this album, so let’s dive in:
The 20/20 Experience: Album Track Reviews with Tiers
I am doing the double album as one full ranking, but I am excluding the bonus/deluxe tracks. “Pair of Wings” will be considered on its own merit, not as part of “Not A Bad Thing,” thankfully for it.
None. Oh, that’s right.
None here either. At least not if I have a say, and it’s my blog so, I do. I considered some of them to be D Tier because I didn’t like them as much as other songs, but considering the quality, style, and execution of them all, I can’t, in good faith, put anything here.
Oh, wait, I forgot about “Not A Bad Thing”.
22. “Not A Bad Thing”: Okay, I always forget about this one because it’s at the end, and it most definitely IS a bad thing. Granted, it’s certainly in Timberlake’s wheelhouse, but for an album that’s trying so hard to push him as a legendary, timeless artist, “Not A Bad Thing” does nothing but evoke the NSYNC days. It’s not badly produced or badly written–albeit very generic sounding–just bad for his target image and established reputation. This song should be sung by the next teen idol, not a grownup looking to cement his status as a pop icon.
21. “Only When I Walk Away”: He tried it, I give him credit for that. Even after dozens of listens to this song, I can only half-confidently say it’s an attempt at rock. If not musically, then at least vocally. It’s wrought with angst and frustration, but I don’t know if I buy it. That will be a theme with the C-tier songs. I admire the attempt at something different, but Justin’s vocals were not made for this kind of song. I put it above the previous song because the message of the song is different than anything else on the record.
20. “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”: With it’s carnal approach to seduction and vivid imagery, this is the most blatantly sexual song on the album. I guess there’s only so many subtle and mature ways to talk about sex before you land on the whole “we’re all just animals” thing. It’s good for what it is–a song comparing sex to being animals in the jungle. However, the beat boxing should have been left on FutureSex.
19. “Let the Groove Get In”: Justin and his production crew tackle a percussion-driven track that starts strong, but becomes repetitive and a little boring. For such a fabulous collection of drum beats and flourishes of brass fare, the song rests on its laurels too much. I do enjoy a lot of aspects of this song, especially the outro, but the repeating chorus just feels pointless and doesn’t incite anything in me. Still not a skippable offense by any means, just wasted potential.
18. “Murder”: Evocative of a either a femme fatale character or a corpse who likes to have sex (“give new meaning to dying to fuck”), “Murder” is certainly an interesting song. Too bad it’s not better written. It would actually be higher if not for lyrics like, “you’re talking real big with your little slim waist”. Sounds like a first draft. Actually, most of the lyrics sound half-written, especially Jay-Z’s verse, which is just some of the worst lyrics ever rapped out loud . It finds itself above the other songs so far because that hypnotic beat is fire, the subtle horns were a great touch, and the bridge is strangely addictive (“I line ’em up, she shoot ’em down”–repeat ad nauseum). I also do like the chorus. So, in short, all style, no substance.
17. “Blue Ocean Floor”: I can’t say that I love this one, but I admire how different it is. Yes, you do get credit for effort. It’s a dreamy, shapeless song with a disjointed structure, but mellow melody, to make it feel both comforting and chaotic at the same time. Plus there’s imagery of drowning, and that always makes me uncomfortable. Pulling off that type of emotion is pretty impressive though, and I applaud it. Do I actually like it more than “Muder”? No. But I think it deserves to be higher on merit. That feels fair, and I don’t care if it’s not in actuality.
16. “Take Back the Night”: I want to like this song so bad. The production pulls off faux-disco pretty well, merged with modern pop beats and Justin effortlessly doing his best 70’s soul impression. It’s not a bad song when you break it down into the sum of its parts. So why can’t I get into? It comes back to a recurring problem on the album (one of its only flaws): I just don’t buy this as authentic. There’s something disingenuous about it, but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s got the voice for it; the song clearly has the production chops. He’s even done 70’s-style music before! Hello, “Rock Your Body”? Anybody remember that? He’s even done it better on this album! It dumbfounds me why this song just doesn’t hit it for me. However, since the sum of its parts are objectively good, I will at least put it here as some sort of acknowledgment that I am not, in fact, a slave to my perceptions and bias all the time.
15. “That Girl”: I was conflicted on this one for so long. My main hangup is that it feels incredibly inauthentic. The cheesy “lounge singer” intro where someone introduced JT & The Tennessee kids, and Justin “humbly” says thank you–it just makes me eye roll every time. Like, shut up. You’re Justin Timberlake. They’re thrilled to have you and pay a shit ton for you.
Also, I could not confirm anywhere online that the song isn’t about dating a black girl. The comments on the YouTube video seem to think that’s what it’s about, with one comment saying Justin himself said he was inspired by the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, which essentially confirms it’s about dating a black girl.
Why would I have a problem with that? Well, I don’t. The topic of interracial dating in of itself is not bad or wrong, but in this case, it doesn’t sit well with me. It again comes back to authenticity because, first of all, he’s married to Jessica Biel. I mean, singers and writers are allowed to write about things that aren’t based in 100% truth, but of all things to draw inspiration on and tell a story about…why this? It feels icky, like the motivations are not genuine (perhaps wanting “credit” for writing about this progressive topic to gain favor amongst the black community).
In fact, Justin Timberlake has historically caught tons of flack for cultural appropriation, which is why it’s more than a hunch that the motivations are not entirely pure here. Maybe they are in his mind, but this has been a trend for him where he’s been accused of wanting to use black music and black culture in his music and videos, but being unusually quiet when it comes to black issues. Although he apologized for it, his history has made me uncomfortable about this song.
With all of that being said, I have to also say that this is one of the best-done songs on the album. The silky-smooth neo soul production is gorgeous, and the addition of horns further lends credit to an old school vibe. Justin milks that for all its worth, hitting some beautiful notes in the process. It’s not the best written love song, nor would I call it even a good love song, regardless of content (“Come here, let me rock you like a baby”?), but it’s certainly well-executed. It’s just so unfortunate that it is so contrived and so disingenuous. So 15 seems like a good spot for it to land.
14. “You Got It On”: This is not a favorite of mine, personally, but I had to acknowledge the execution. This is what neo-soul should sound like, and Justin’s evoking of Marvin Gaye only helps its case. I also appreciate that it’s not a crude or excessive sex song; it’s far more subdued and refined, like he’s a grown-ass man, in love with his beautiful wife.
13. “Mirrors”: Many people call this the best song on the album, which made me hesitant to put it so low, much less in C-tier, but let me explain. While it’s far more genuine than the previous love/sex songs listed in this tier, the production is what I don’t like about it. Timbaland’s signature beat-boxing completely undermines what could have been an elegant, subdued song. 2006 is over, man! Move on.
The symphonic flourishes and wrought emotion carry this song. I don’t have a problem with its length, as it lets the message really permeate into your soul. For example, when most of the music drops out for one of the final choruses, it’s beautiful. Leaning on vocals and drums at first, eventually the main riff coming in underneath and really seals it. Also, the refrains (or are they outros?) “you are, you are the love of my life” and “Girl, you’re my reflection/ All I see is you” help reinforce the main message, leaving you with warm and fuzzy feelings, if you’re not some kind of monster. By this point, the production has scaled back and it matches the song much better, in my opinion.
12. “TKO”: “She kill me with the coo coochie coo coo.” That’s why this is so low. Yes, 12 is low. I feel like I should defend this song though because the fighting metaphor is a little cheesy and it’s not the best-produced or even most complex or well-composed song on the album. So why put it in tier? Well, guys, the song fucking slaps. So that’s worth a lot. Still pulled off better than “Take Back the Night” and I STILL DO NOT KNOW WHY.
11. “Tunnel Vision”: I’ve seen accusations that say this is a creepy, obsessive song. If it is, it’s at least being creepy and obsessive toward someone who appears to be his girlfriend. There’s nothing indicating he’s stalking some unsuspecting lady. I read it as being really into the one you’re with. Also, really hard to care about that when the beat is absolute fire. It’s repetitive lyrically, but it rides that line between being repetitive because it’s a catchy earworm and being obnoxious and poorly written. It’s mostly the former, and it always sounds better than I remember each time I hear it. The spiraling notes in the bridge feel like you’re also spiraling with Justin, as you zoom, zoom, zoom closer to the person of your affections. Everything becomes so clear.
10. “Cabaret”: This could have easily been a sleazy song, but it doesn’t play like that at all. It’s about having a partner who’s into doing kinky, secret strip shows for her lover. How sweet! The pre-chorus is metered in a different way than the rest of the song, too, which is cool (if I even used “metered” right). That rhythm and flow breaks up the rest of the song, and it’s probably my favorite part. Also can we talk about how Drake’s verse really isn’t as bad as some critics/fans want you to believe? I mean, he does rhyme “long” like 4 times, but I forgive it because he’s confident about it.
Let’s talk about the reason I’m so endeared to this song and “TKO” : the transition between these songs embodies everything I love about this album. It’s only something you can get by listening to the songs back-to-back. During Drake’s verse on “Cabaret”, we begin hearing a de-crescendo of synths that add a fantastic dimension to the song that carry us through the outro of the song. It’s also a very similar melody to the synths in “TKO”‘s main riff. As “Cabaret” fades out, an ominous, disembodied voice comes through: “In all enthrilling, new, living sound”. All the sudden, we’re in a new song, with the same line starting off “TKO” (and thus, ending “Cabaret”) and it immediately hits us with those juicy synths in a very similar fashion as the ones that ended “Cabaret”. Confused yet? Go listen to it. It’ll all materialize.
This is where it gets really good. I will probably only be singing praises from here on out, so avert your gaze if that’s not what you’re into.
9. “True Blood”: Everytime I think I want to bump this song down, I listen to it, and I think about how I can’t do it like that. This is one of those times where going out on a limb and doing something different, and possibly ill-fitting, actually worked. The unsettling, weird aspect works in its favor. Everything from the rhythm and cadence, to the imagery it conjures (the howl-like sounds in the background are the right amount of spooky), to the way the song keeps coming up with new ways to transform as it goes on. It’s how they should have approached composition on all the other songs that didn’t reach this bar. Also, why wasn’t this ever a Halloween anthem? We have so few Halloween songs, you’d think people would be all over it.
8. “Pair of Wings”: Hearing a song like this gorgeous, simple love song makes me angry that something like “That Girl” wasn’t better written. Justin and his team can clearly write a heart-felt love song wrought with real emotion, not ham-fisted showman attempts. It’s stark, how stripped down this song is. Absolutely gorgeous song and a great homerun by Justin, stepping out of his wheelhouse and succeeding.
7. “Don’t Hold the Wall: Hey, “Let the Groove Get In”, this is a dance song, and it’s the appropriate way to incorporate drums from another culture. According to one columnist, the song features “pseudo-Indian beats” and “tribal drums”, specifically taking from Bollywood and Bhangra music. They do a bang up job mixing the rest of the production and vocals around this. There’s even a drum breakdown, which is something I longed for in “Groove”! The song is full of spiffy transitions and cool musical elements, which is very technical musical review terminology for “this shit bangs”.
6. “Strawberry Bubblegum”: Let me just make up a genre to describe this: dreamsoulpop. It goes from being a retro soul-influenced love ballad to being this ethereal, hazy pop tune that morphs in and out of genres. It’s so well-crafted that I have never thought twice about the words “bubblegum” and “lollipop” being used seriously in a love song. My favorite part, and probably the best part of the song, is the bridge where he introduces the phrase “blueberry lollipop” (the transition starts around 5 and a half minutes in). Another fantastic evolution on the album, the song takes on a whole new identity, including some very tasty funk vibes (that bass line is so sick that it needs medical care). If the song were shorter, the payoff would not be nearly as sweet. So, sit down, shut up, and enjoy your 8-minute song. Delayed gratification is a sign of maturity.
5. “Suit&Tie”: Effortless elegance. That’s this song in two words. When I hear “Suit&Tie”, I think of Justin and his lady dressed to the nines at a gala or ball, served by waiters in white gloves, eating from opulent dinnerware, and just generally being fancy and lavish. The production is slick, with horns, what sounds like an actual harp (but I’m certain isn’t), and a memorable beat layered together seamlessly. Jay-Z’s verse kicks off a slight change in the rhythm and tempo, shifting it toward a thick, synth-y breakdown that really tickles the eardrum. I enjoy a lot of the wordplay on this song, too. “We don’t mind all the watching / ‘Cause if they study close, real close, they might learn something”, and “Oh shit, so sick got a hit and picked up a habit,” are two of my favorites.
4. “Spaceship Coupe”: I never thought a novelty track about getting freaky in space would ever make it into any top five I’ve done, but here we are. Allow me to reintroduce you to… Justin doing neo-soul right. He kills it here, then resurrects it, and kills it again. Old school soul meets a Prince-esque guitar solo, divine falsettos, and sci-fi innuendos to create this extraterrestrial experience that far exceeds whatever myopic vision that mere mortals might have otherwise devised. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but this is not Katy Perry’s “ET”; this is exploring sexuality with someone new and how weird, but exciting, that can be. I’m here for it in a big way.
3. “Amnesia”: It’s amazing this song is so high, even with Timbaland’s obnoxious beatboxing. Nothing dates these songs worse than that. However, the mixture of orchestral sounds and hip-hop is gorgeous and well-executed. The poignant lyrics and emotional delivery forgive its single sin. It is so strong that it still deserves number 4, and if you don’t believe me, you need to re-listen to “Amnesia”.
The song really finds itself during the outro, where the tempo and rhythm shifts to what sounds like a totally different song. Using prominent strings and traditional hip-hop beats as the backdrop to Timberlake’s voice, we twist deeper into the meat of the song, much like with “Mirrors”. It begins with the line “So tear me apart and do it again tomorrow”, and eventually gives way to the line “this is turning into some kind of fucking amnesia”. The latter is a recall of an earlier line that is almost exactly the same, sans F-bomb. I think it really drives a nail into the heart of the song and it’s absolutely perfect. Without these “lengthy, self-indulgent” songs, we wouldn’t have “Amnesia”. Let’s hope we never do, lest we should forget this song.
2. “Drink You Away”: I worship in the house of rock and roll, where this song is the altar call. I heard the 2015 CMA’s performance of this song with Chris Stapleton long before I heard the entire 20/20 Experience. I fell in love with the live performance, but the studio version more than holds its own. As a huge blues fan, anything that gets in the vicinity will endear me if done remotely right. It’s not just blues though, it’s the mix of country and a tiny bit of gospel (which really shined in the live performance).
Damn, even the studio version gives me chills and makes me want to yell along with it. Wanting not for the extravagant production of other tracks on this album, “Drink You Away” thrives on Justin’s belting vocals, minimalist guitar-playing, subtle, but beautiful organ flourishes, and that driving drum beat. Killer melody, great lyrics, absolutely perfect production. Less was more here, and if Justin spent the rest of his career making only music like this, it wouldn’t be enough.
This so clearly wanted to be number one. And I so very much wanted it to be there, if not for one, tiny, little problem.
1. “Pusher Love Girl”: I’m addicted to this song. Please inject it directly into my veins. Which is really on-brand for this song. The moment I watched the lyric video for this song, I knew this entire album would be special.
This song is peak 20/20 Experience: experimenting, letting the song meander, grow, and get lodged in your brain, genre-blending, well-composed, beautiful. I struggle to even find appropriate musical terms or praise to give it that’s not just, “YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THIS SONG”.
We’re back with Justin Does Neo-Soul Really Well. In case you haven’t heard this week’s episode, uh, he’s still really good. This song showcases everything right about what Justin, the producers, and the writers wanted to accomplish on this album. But it’s more than doing really great neo-soul or R&B; it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard in R&B or pop or anything in between. The song makes you feel high, and that totally embodies what the album is going for. It want to make you feel the songs; not just hear them.
I can’t help this is number 1. I’m just under the influence.