Justin Timberlake ‘The 20/20 Experience' (RCA)
This matter of Justin Timberlake — his ascendance as not only an A-list pop performer but a singer worthy of serious consideration — took some convincing, and a good portion of the persuasion was done when he was not even recording music. Timberlake's hilarious and totally game performances on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and as a member of the exclusive club of five-time “Saturday Night Live” hosts went a long way toward transforming his popularity into coolness, and those who were still suspicious of his boy-band roots began to reassess. Plus, his music undeniably improved: the unencumbered freak funk of “SexyBack,” “My Love” and “Sexy Ladies” from 2006's “Future Sex/Love Sounds” was a quantum leap from ‘N Sync and 2002's “Justified.” Even KCRW-FM, Los Angeles' proudly eclectic but decidedly noncommercial taste-making public radio station, was playing JT's jams by the end of the decade.
Except for guest appearances, Timberlake largely sat out the last seven years of pop music, but “The 20/20 Experience” has him applying for Michael Jackson's old job, a position that has attracted few serious or deserving applicants. And no, “The 20/20 Experience” is not an achievement on the level of classic Jackson, but while 2002's “Rock Your Body” had “Off the Wall” aspirations, most of this album is actually in the ballpark. The gold-plated urbane disco slammer “Suit & Tie” with Jay-Z and Timberlake's regal centerpiece ballad “Mirrors” are the obvious out-of-the-gate winners, but Timberlake and his collaborating producers, Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, spend their downtime from the singles diving into expansive pools of funk. Most of the 10 tracks on “20/20” clock in around seven minutes, allowing plenty of time, as Timberlake chants on an exhilarating Afrobeat showstopper, to “Let the Groove Get In.”
This kind of stretching suggests that Timberlake is cannily walking the fine line between being a polished chart monster and an all-out weirdo. By exploring earthy Southern soul on “That Girl” and pulling in a Parliament Funkadelic-style guitar solo on “Spaceship Coupe,” he is incorporating just enough eccentricity to be interesting but not alienating. This is a growth album for Timberlake, but also for Timbaland, who produces with newfound warmth. Opening salvo “Pusher Love Girl” still incorporates the yelps and asides that have been Timbaland's stock in trade since his work with Missy Elliott, but the Hammond B-3, hand claps and strings behind Timberlake's Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto make this feel both classic and current. Just two years ago when he was deep into movie commitments, Timberlake sounded ambivalent about a singing career, but on “The 20/20 Experience,” he seems to have a vision for life on the pop throne.
— George Lang