Music Reviews
6:00 pm
Wed March 20, 2013

Justin Timberlake's Musical Vision Isn't '20/20'

Originally published on Mon March 18, 2013 4:59 pm

For his long anticipated return to music, Justin Timberlake pulled out all the stops. He hired an old colleague, the hit-making machine Timbaland, to produce. He got rap kingpin Jay-Z to do a cameo. As executive producer, Timberlake made sure everything has that state-of-the-art sheen. And as the tune "Tunnel Vision" shows, Timberlake leaned heavily on the sound that made him a star: elaborate multitracked vocal harmonies.

Sure enough, The 20/20 Experience is ultra-plush all the way. Exceedingly competent — and relentlessly bland. This is what it sounds like when a pop star gets too big to fail.

"Suit and Tie" is the allegedly danceable first single. Perhaps you've heard it? Timberlake has, after all, been carpet-bombing late-night TV to generate excitement for the album launch. He's wise to work overtime on the sell, because there's so little song there: This little bitty two-note excuse for a melody sounds like something a preschooler might sing while playing with sock puppets at the kitchen table.

Timberlake has never been what you'd call a visionary, but on his last album, he showed a great sense of the pop refrain. This time, he's just plain timid. The songs have no edge, no zip — they're generic medium-tempo loops that last way too long, with a few clocking in at close to eight minutes. The length allows Timberlake to bring you your full daily requirement of mindless clichés. Track one: love as drug. Track four: love as sugary bubblegum. Track six: love as something that happens in a spaceship built for two.

There's a real art to lightweight feel-good pop. And for the most part, it's missing from Timberlake's latest. What we have, instead, is a celebrity feeling out his place in 2013, and you hear his worry. He's making calculations about the market, serving up a dim, cynical and decidedly limited vision of what pop music can be.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Justin Timberlake has come a long way since his early days on The New Mickey Mouse Club and as a singer for the boy band *NSYNC. He has since acted in some big movies, including "The Social Network." And as a singer now on his own, he's become a true chart-topping pop star. This week, Timberlake releases his first album since 2006. It's called "The 20/20 Experience." And critic Tom Moon says it offers a decidedly muddy vision of pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRRORS")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: For his long-anticipated return to music, Justin Timberlake pulled out all the stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRRORS")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Aren't you something to admire because your shine is something like a mirror, and I can't help but notice. You reflect in this heart of mine.

MOON: He hired an old colleague - the hit-making machine known as Timbaland - to produce. He got rap kingpin Jay-Z to do a cameo. As executive producer, Timberlake made sure everything has that state-of-the-art sheen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUNNEL VISION")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I got that tunnel vision for you. I got that tunnel vision for you. I got, I got that tunnel vision for you. I got, I got that tunnel vision. I only see you.

MOON: And as that tune shows, Timberlake leaned heavily on the sound that made him a star, those elaborately multitracked vocal harmonies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUNNEL VISION")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Tunnel vision. I only see you. Yeah.

MOON: "The 20/20 Experience" is ultra-plush all the way, exceedingly competent and relentlessly bland. This is what it sounds like when a pop star gets too big to fail.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUIT AND TIE")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) I can't wait till I get you on the floor, good-looking. Hey, going out so hot, just like an oven, and I'll burn myself but just had to touch it.

MOON: That's "Suit and Tie," the first single. Perhaps you've heard it. Timberlake has, after all, been carpet-bombing late-night TV to generate excitement for the album launch. He's wise to work overtime on the sell because there's so little song there. This little bitty two-note excuse for a melody sounds like something a preschooler might sing while playing with sock puppets at the kitchen table.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUIT AND TIE")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) ...tonight. And as long as I got my suit and tie, I'mma leave it all on the floor tonight, and you got fixed up to the nines. Let me show you a few things. All pressed up in black and white, and you're dressed in that dress I like. Love is swinging in the air tonight. Let me show you a few things. Let me show you a few things.

MOON: Timberlake has never been what you'd call a visionary, but on his last album, he showed a great sense of the pop hook. This time, he's just plain timid. The songs have no zip. They're generic medium-tempo loops that last way too long, a few clocking in at close to eight minutes. The length allows Timberlake to bring you your full daily requirement of mindless cliches. Track one, love as drug. Track four, love as sugary bubblegum. Track six, love as something that happens in a spaceship built for two.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACESHIP COUPE")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) We can take an airplane, but the dawn is way too high. We're going where the day sky turns into night. I got the windows special tinted for the skies that get too bright. And I saved you a seat, so let's ride. Hop into my spaceship coupe. There's only room for two, me and you. And with the...

MOON: There's a real art to lightweight feel-good pop, and for the most part, it's missing from Justin Timberlake's latest. What we have, instead, is a celebrity trying to find his place in 2013, and it sounds like he's worried. He's making calculations about the market and serving up a dim, cynical, decidedly limited vision of what pop music can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSHER LOVE GIRL")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Now you got me hopped up on that pusher love.

BLOCK: Our reviewer is Tom Moon. Justin Timberlake's new album is called "The 20/20 Experience."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSHER LOVE GIRL")

TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) 'Cause all I want is you, babe. One more time. Pusher love.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.