When fans last heard Justin Timberlake, he was a spry 25-year-old hell-bent on bringing sexy back. Now, at 32, he’s more interested in being suave and debonair in his Tom Ford suit and tie with The 20/20 Experience.
On his third album he plays the role of the big-band leader, giving each song ample time to breathe. On the hour-and-ten-minute-long record, only one track, “That Girl,” clocks in under five minutes, with two songs – “Pusher Love Girl” and “Mirrors” – stretching to over eight minutes long.
It’s been seven years since Timberlake hit the charts with FutureSex/LoveSounds. That is a long time by any standard, but in music it is actually an eternity. Things have changed since Timberlake decided he wanted to focus on his acting career. Now more than ever, songs stick to a formula: keep it short and catchy, and if they’re not, well they can be edited down to work for radio. Clearly, Timberlake is aware of this, but he isn’t interesting in following the rules. He’d rather make his own.
When it came to the first single, “Suit & Tie,” which broke his own personal best first-week digital sales record for a single, Timberlake stayed true to the five-minute-and-26-second version on the album. The song, he said, was inspired by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack.
His second single, “Mirrors,” is an eight-minute opus to his new wife, Jessica Biel, that reads like the fairytale ending to “Cry Me A River.” Despite its length, “Mirrors” is the album’s most conventional-sounding track; that, combined with its “I believe in soulmates” theme, will earn the song prime placement throughout prom season 2013. This single has yet to see the same success as “Suit & Tie” in the U.S. but has managed to make it to No. 1 on the U.K. single charts, according to Billboard.
The main question raised by his lengthy singles: Is Timberlake powerful enough to change the musical landscape?
Sure, he’ll have the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart when The 20/20 Experience is released on March 19, but he would likely have earned the top spot no matter what he put out. His fanbase is loyal enough to feel that any Justin is good Justin.
Changing music has less to do with his fans and more to do with his critics, whom Justin is so clearly trying to impress with his new (old) sound. Will they greet his newfound maturity with open arms or wonder where the old JT went?
Timberlake isn’t completely leaving his halcyon days behind him. There’s still a bit of youthfulness on this record, thanks in large part to his frequent producer Timbaland, who makes us long for a new Missy Elliot album when he flips it and reverses it on the closing track “Blue Ocean Floor.” On “Strawberry Bubblegum,” Timberlake gets sexy with his staccato pleas of “Don’t ever change your flavor/I love your taste,” and with “Pusher Love Girl,” he wears his love for Al Green on his sleeve in a way that doesn’t feel so old-hat.
The biggest problem with the record isn’t the addition of a big band. It’s that Timberlake, like Saturday Night Live, is in serious need of an editor. The five-time host has to agree that one killer joke is better than trying to stretch a sketch out to earn a few more mediocre laughs. Likewise when it comes to Timberlake’s music: four minutes is more than enough time to get his message across. “That Girl,” the album’s shortest song, proves that. With help from the big band-stylings of The Tennessee Kids, Timberlake breaks it down on the horn-laden love song. He doesn’t veer off into a bridge halfway through that leads us back to the chorus for the fourth time, instead he keeps it light and fun, not unlike the N.E.R.D-produced “Senorita,” off 2002′s Justified.
Timberlake might have just suffered from the seven-year itch, worrying if he didn’t update his style to the umpteenth degree it would seem like he didn’t use his time wisely. Instead of a natural maturation though, Timberlake seems to have gone a little too old-fashioned, veering away from today’s pop. Tossing in a Jay-Z guest spot doesn’t young it up either.
However, there are inklings here that eventually, Timberlake can be the band leader he’s set out to be. He just needs to really hone in and find himself like he did after his debut. That hard look eventually gave us FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Here’s hoping fans won’t have to wait another seven years to hear a finely-tuned release from Mr. Timberlake.