The first singles off Justin Timberlake's long-awaited third album implied that, a decade after his solo debut, he's grown. "Suit and Tie" and, to a lesser degree, "Mirrors" work very hard to present the former boy bander as a sharp-dressed man who has abandoned his dog-on-the-dancefloor 20s to focus on the finer, more important things in life. Such as a well-tailored wardrobe, the slow and gentlemanly seduction of one's lady, the joys of hanging with fellow all-grown man-about-town Jay-Z, and a whole lot of vintage soul (especially classic Motown).
But never fear: J.T. and super-producer Timbaland are still bringing sexy back; they're just doing it in a more ... Clooney-ish fashion. So instead of dance pop pickup lines like "Señorita" or "Damn Girl," we get monogamy anthem "That Girl," which kind of sounds like a sequel to "My Girl" if it were recorded during The Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" era. Instead of bitter breakup songs like "Cry Me a River" or "What Goes Around Comes Around," where sex is used as a weapon and Timbaland's ocean of beats rises up like an army, we get "Pusher Love Girl," a love song dripping in softly gritty, sensually seductive, Curtis Mayfield-ish funk and sung in a falsetto that's like baby kisses on the back of your neck. We also get "Strawberry Bubblegum," a slice of neo-soul couched in Motown, peppered with bubble-popping beats and featuring Timbaland doing his best Barry White impression. These are the kinds of songs every girl wants someone to write about her, sung by the kind of elegant, well-dressed, woo-pitching married man grown women daydream about and push to the top of their "acceptable cheating exceptions" list.
The 20/20 Experience isn't without a few up-all-night bangers, though: "Don't Hold the Wall" is a Timbaland playground of camel-clop beats, old movie bites and vaguely foreign samples that calls on the listener to spend a hedonistic night out dancing your cares away. J.T. hip-swivels his way through it with the M.J.-copped charm that endeared him to us in the first place, but tracks like these aren't really for him. They're for the fans thirsting for another "Sexyback" and, more importantly, they're for Timbaland.
After all, this record is as much a showcase for the producer as the star. Timbaland had been keeping pretty quiet lately himself, and 20/20 leaves plenty of space in which to spread his well-rested wings. Most of the tracks here extend beyond the meat of the song for an extra minute or even two in which our host chops, screws and taffy-pulls its structure. Then there's "Let the Groove Get In," which can only nominally be called a Justin Timberlake song: He basically sings a riff, then sits back while Timbaland snatches it up and swaddles it in nests of beats culled from Algerian rai, Egyptian pop and Indian bhangra.
Hearing the legendary beatmaker strut his stuff again is electrifying; we've missed him even more than we realized. And the break has done him good. Some tracks (like the aforementioned "Body Count") run into the same issues that warranted a break in the first place -- all those diverse, far-flung beats start to mush together into a melting pot of same-samey. But give him a little structure, a thematic concept to take up, and Timbaland's considerable creative juices flood the joint. Take "Blue Ocean Floor," the dynamic duo's attempt at a Miguel/The Weeknd/Frank Ocean-style atmospheric texture. The maritime lyrics are as hokey as a cheap seashell souvenir at a seaside tourist trap. But the beats call up a swirling, otherworldly swell in which sounds drift in and out, ebbing and flowing around Justin's siren-like vocals, themselves an experiment in various textures, from echoing falsetto to a sandy chest voice.
The two superstars have always played well together, building their careers out of building on each other's musical ideas and aesthetic urges. J.T. provided a fairly adorable, creatively eager, mainstream-friendly face for Timbo's pop experiments. And Timbaland's critically acclaimed beats and hip-hop cred have provided the materials with which Timberlake has built not only musical authenticity, but also a legitimate masculinity that manages to encompass his Jay-Z-befriending present, his boy band past and that sensitively seductive falsetto.
So if some of the old-soul poses here feel pretty heavily stylized, it's because 20/20 is merely the continuation of that project: a new era, a new season, a new line of artistic masculinity. Setting "That Girl" in the kind of "underground club" a former Mickey Mouse Club member has likely never played is as important a sonic feature as the tightly choreographed backing vocals -- a stylistic exploration of the ways we define artistic substance. And even when the shtick is painted on so thick you can smell it, it's all still exceptionally listenable: See "Spaceship Coupe," with its pitter-pattering keys, Princely guitar and Motownish cutesy-wutesiness, all adding up to one of Timbaland's most exhilarating experiments in organized chaos within a concept. That said, it's also pretty fantastic to hear the twosome take off in more futuristic directions, like the sleek, symphonic "Tunnel Vision."
The term "20/20" suggests a clear, full perspective, but it's one that can only come with hindsight. Justin Timberlake's third album undoubtedly offers a pitch-perfect picture of the kind of artist -- and man -- he wants to be seen as right now. But it does so without obscuring the sounds, poses and partnerships that got him here.