Justin Timberlake is such a natural entertainer – such a charismatic and effortlessly appealing singer, dancer and showman – that it’s easy to ignore how weirdly, how willfully, he’s gone about his career. He graduated from the Mickey Mouse Club to ‘NSync to solo superstardom – a natural enough progression – but then, at the height of his success, he spit the bit, jettisoning music to dabble in movies, SNL viral videos and, um, golf. Timberlake released his superb second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, six and a half years ago, an eternity in pop music. When that album’s lead single, “SexyBack,” first hit the charts in the summer of 2006, no one had ever heard of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
Now, suddenly, Timberlake is back – and he’s sounding woollier than ever. The 20/20 Experience is the biggest pop event of 2013 so far, but it’s not quite a pop album. Its sense of musical space-time is more elastic and sprawling than anything on the radio: The 10 tracks average seven minutes; songs unfurl into vamps, abruptly change keys, pile on unexpected beats and harmonies. The music is catchy, but the emphasis is on rhythm and flow. In one showpiece, JT chants over brass, percussion and strings; the music takes a world’s worth of sounds: Afrobeat, soca, bhangra, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The song is called “Let the Groove Get In.” It would have been an apt album title.
You might call The 20/20 Experience Timberlake’s neo-soul record. (It has more in common with D’Angelo and Maxwell than Usher or Bieber.) “Pusher Love Girl,” an ode to the intoxicating effects of love and sex, borrows Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto and Stevie Wonder’s chord changes; the swinging groove of “Suit & Tie” is pure “What’s Going On”-era Marvin Gaye. There are other period touches: When guitarist Elliott Ives steps forward for a rippling solo in “Spaceship Coupe,” it sounds as if Eddie Hazel, the great Parliament-Funkadelic axman, has piloted his mothership into Timberlake’s orbit.
JT isn’t the only one staging a comeback here. His old partner Timbaland co-produced every track, along with Timberlake himself and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon. Timbaland has also been lying low, and The 20/20 Experience is both a return to form and a departure, deftly combining his trademark shape-shifting digital funk with a warmer, more organic sound.
The 20/20 Experience may test the patience of fans expecting immediate gratification. There are no songs as instantly infectious as “Like I Love You” or “SexyBack,” nothing that cuts as deep as “Cry Me a River” or “My Love.” But eventually the music sinks its teeth in, even on the wooziest songs. The closing “Blue Ocean Floor” has no beat as such, and not much of a melody – just stray percussion coloring a wash of psychedelic sounds. Timberlake sings, “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore/And I can’t hear you through the white noise/Just send your heartbeat out there to the blue ocean floor.” If you had to categorize it, you’d call it an abstract ambient soul ballad. But that guy in the suit and tie, that showbiz savant – in the end, he makes it sound like pop.