By JEFF LIU
I grew up despising pop music. In middle school, during my (shameful) metalhead phase, I hung out with my wallflower friends in the bathroom of the school gym during dances uncomfortably chaperoned by homeroom teachers ridiculing the music coming from the speakers of the incompetent student “DJ”. One of the worst offenders was “SexyBack” off Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds: its grating, repetitive simplicity violating my ears and those of my fellow rebellious youth. But as time progressed and my music taste along with it, my insistence on listening to music that no one else liked began to fade. I gave up on the notion that artistic music had to have complex, finger-tapping riffs and surrendered my sensibilities to pop hooks and pounding beats. Soon, I realized that even Justin Timberlake could be art, and in his latest effort The 20/20 Experience, this fact is more evident than ever.
JT’s previous effort, the aforementioned FutureSex/LoveSounds, showed an artistic growth that eluded me, since it was released during the apex of my middle school career. While songs such as “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and “Summer Love” were obvious pop hits, the nuances of producer-extraordinaire Timbaland’s stuttering, glitchy, and textured beats elevated those earworms to high art status. 20/20 maintains this artistry with beautifully detailed production, yet throws its predecessor’s pop sensibilities out the window.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any catchy melodies on this album. The hooks on lead singles “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors” are as much of a guilty pleasure as anything Timberlake has done. However, the structure of these songs make them decidedly anti-pop. The aforementioned “Mirrors”, for example, is a daunting, not radio-friendly eight minutes long, consisting of a stadium-type pop anthem followed by a soulful, looping extended outro. The length of 20/20’s other songs is just as expansive, often consisting of multiple sections that explore variations of the song’s rhythm and melody.
Perhaps the most drastic examples of these shifts are the third and fourth tracks. In the Eastern-influenced “Don’t Hold the Wall”, for example, the second half of the song sees the shuffling bhangra drums replaced by booming bass and a club-anthem drumbeat. “Strawberry Bubblegum” undergoes the opposite transition, beginning with electronic bleeps accompanying a danceable drum machine rhythm before fading into a jazzy break with electric piano. Opener “Pusher Love Girl” also shows this type of shift, as the stuttering guitar riff and hesitant drums are substituted for a pounding boom bap beat accented by synthesized handclaps and the distinctive beatboxing of Timbaland in the second half.
The only songs with the potential for traditional pop appeal are the two shortest: the woozy love song “That Girl” and the Jay-Z assisted “Suit & Tie”. It’s still difficult to imagine middle schoolers shuffling awkwardly to these songs as they do to “SexyBack,” given the laid back, lounge quality of both songs. Jay-Z’s lethargic, phoned-in “I’m rich” verse especially will throw unsuspecting tweens off their dance game.
The album as a whole adopts the “oldies” vibe. While FutureSex/LoveSounds imagined pop in the future, 20/20 merges modern hip hop production with a nostalgic aesthetic that takes influence from the jazz lounge aesthetic. The only track that seems to contradict this standard is the decidedly experimental and futuristic closing track “Blue Ocean Floor”, which utilizes backwards instrumentals to create a sense of longing as support for Timberlake’s emotive crooning.
20/20 is an album for the poptimist: the music fan who finds artistic value within music that happens to top the charts. Though Timberlake’s latest effort is not necessarily radio-fodder, the album’s catchy grooves and melodies have an immediate impact that can be enjoyed by any lover of pop music. The album’s use of expansive track lengths filled with musical shifts that don’t shy away from drastic variations in each song, as well as its rejection of the modern pop archetype with its retro style establish the album as deserving of artistic evaluation, in spite of its immediacy. Once again, Timberlake proves that popular enjoyment and artistic integrity are not mutually exclusive.