The 20/20 Experience Needs Lasik Surgery
By: Connor Lenahan
Let me make this clear before I get too far: I love Justin Timberlake. I own every solo piece of music he has ever made and at one point owned every possibly N*SYNC album. Sadly, for the latter that was in the pre-iTunes era so I am currently working on reacquiring all of those works of sheer beauty. I also actively enjoy the album The 20/20 Experience. I do not, in any way, mean to say that is a bad album, because I would be wrong to say that.
I do however mean to say that the album has a glaring flaw that is inescapable. The thing is too damn long. You cannot tell me a CD with 10 songs on it can come in at a staggering 70 minutes long. Especially with the kind of music Justin Timberlake is best known for.
Let’s start with the good before we get to the bad. Justified came out in 2002 and has given us some awesome tracks that hold up to this day. Songs like “Señorita,” “Like I Love You,” “Cry Me a River” and “Rock Your Body” all play equally as well as a decade post-release as they did 2002. One thing that helps all of these is their length. “Señorita” is a classic party song, and comes in at 4:55. “Like I Love You,” a personal favorite that is excellent to drive to, finishes in 4:44. “Cry Me a River,” the single most scathing song of the new millennium, which seemingly trashes Britney Spears forever, accomplished the job in 4:48. Finally, “Rock Your Body,” which should be our new national anthem (this isn’t a conversation, I’m right) should be legally required to be played at all dance functions until the apocalypse, measures in at 4:27.
It is not hard to listen to any of these songs. It’s quite easy really. You are getting what you expect for the most part, save for the semi-legendary breakdown on the back half of “Señorita.” All of these songs play well as radio songs.
Four years later, Justin released FutureSex/LoveSounds, which is one of the best albums of the 2000’s and of all time. It’s a masterpiece. Seriously, he goes 12 for 12 on the album and there is never, ever a dull moment.
The longest songs on FutureSex/LoveSounds are “Sexy Ladies/Let Me Talk To You (Prelude)” (5:33), “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows (Interlude)” (7:24), “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around (Interlude)” (7:29), “Summer Love/Set The Mood (Prelude)” (6:24) and “(Another Song) All Over Again” (5:45).
The common thread is the Pre/Interlude tracks. He is using a mini-song to transition phases of the album. “Let Me Talk To You” builds up “My Love” to one of the most engaging beat drops in recent music history. Moreover, “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows (Interlude)” & “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around (Interlude)” comprise the greatest 15 minutes of Justin’s career and anyone that disagrees should be deported. I’m hard pressed to find two consecutive songs (Three really, one could make an argument for “I Think She Knows” being a stand alone track) that work better on an album together than these two. “Set The Mood” does exactly what it is entitled to do and tees up the slower, more soulful final three tracks. “(Another Song) All Over Again” closes this flawless artistic achievement with one of the most criminally underrated songs I’ve ever heard.
The lengths of the songs on this album are deceiving. The longest five are either literally two songs combined or the musical equivalent of a walk-off home run. The other seven tracks may be on the longer side, but never eclipse 5:30. This album is an effortless listen. Everything is exactly where is should be in time.
I was really wishing this year when The 20/20 Experience dropped, that this album would be a worthy follow up to FutureSex/LoveSounds. Admittedly, he would need to somehow improve upon perfection, which is impossible by design, so I was set up for some level of disappointment. I was truly disappointed though when I figured out the formula he had used to write the 10 new songs.
It has been written about many times in the year he-has-risen-and-crooned-“Mirrors” that Timberlake had a deal with LiveNation and stood to make a base salary at eight figures if he went on tour this year. I have no issue with him taking a deal for $20,000,000, hell I’m proud if anything. I’m just upset that he decided that the tour was the first priority.
Here is what I mean. The songs on the album are specifically engineered to be played live. Want proof? Lets go through the album shall we? “Pusher Love Girl” is 8:03 to start the album. The song transitions at the 4:50 mark, where it could have very easily ended without anyone being upset, and keeps chugging along with a long verse comparing Jessica Biel to drugs that roughly 75% of the crowd probably has in them when at the concert. “Suit and Tie” is 5:26, not awful. It features Jay Z, who is the only other artist to appear on the album. Who is Justin touring with? Jay Z. Who did Jay Z tap to sing on the title track of his new album Magna Carta Holy Grail? Justin Timberlake. If this is a coincidence then I’m really Tony Stark. “Don’t Hold The Wall” plays for 7:11 and has specific moments (Read: 4:20-7:11) specifically meant for a dance along. “Strawberry Bubblegum” is five minutes of sexual innuendo that is easily glossed over because Timberlake sounds like a combination of Fergie and Jesus followed by a new single from Steely Dan. I’m serious; anyone that has ever heard The Nightfly by Donald Fagen would start giggling at how eerily similar the final three minutes of this song are to that entire album. We go next to “Tunnel Vision” which both sounds like a more vintage Timberlake, yet is plagued by being too long to be a radio single (6:47).
Let’s pause for a second and acknowledge that, at the midway point of this album, the shortest song is 5:26. Which would be good enough for the eight longest on FutureSex/LoveSounds and third longest on Justified. Throw in that whole “The majority of FutureSex/LoveSounds is songs combined with an interlude so it’s basically two songs presented as one” thing and I start getting a little concerned.
The second half of the album opens with “Spaceship Coupe” which is 7:17 but in reality is 7:17 too long. This should not have made the album, sorry, not sorry. Then there is the odd choice of “That Girl” which uses an introduction to Justin and the Tennessee Kids after we have been through six songs. This is mind boggling to me. This should have most certainly been the album opener. Sure, “Pusher Love Girl” works well at the #1 spot, but why the hell is the “event” we are listening to being started once it’s almost over? This still confuses me. It should also be noted that “That Girl” is the only song shorter than 5 minutes on the album, going 4:48. Following that puzzling choice is “Let The Groove Get In” which may be 7:12, but is the only song on the album I have no issue being that long. It’s incredible and shockingly listenable. Plus, it will live on forever as an anthem, or dance hit, or revolution starter, I’m not sure, but I’m never tiring of this one. “Mirrors” is awesome, there’s no denying that, but it’s final three minutes of love directed at a certain former 7th Heaven star are completely unnecessary and have to count for something. If this song is only 5:00, as opposed to its real 8:06, then it is a much, much better song, and would have put up more of a fight this summer against “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” as the official summer song. The closing song, “Blue Ocean Floor” is actually Nyquil given in audio form. It’s almost impossible to be 100% awake during this 7:22 lullaby.
Overall here is the breakdown. Only once does a song fall under five minutes (“That Girl”). Only twice does it fall under six minutes (“That Girl” and “Suit and Tie”). A song eclipses eight minutes thrice (“Pusher Love Girl,” “Strawberry Bubblegum” and “Mirrors”). Overall the album averages seven minutes per song. This is also known as “way too long, unless you are mid 80’s Metallica.”
The real problem lies in how these songs translate into radio. Sure, the Legends of Summer tour has been widely reviewed as being awesome, which I would bet anything that it is. He made the songs to make the best possible tour. But at the same time, with the personality he is, Timberlake should be owning this year in pop music. But he isn’t. Robin Thicke decided to make two songs that are insanely Timberlake-esque that are also better radio songs, and a hell of a lot more impressive than anything Timberlake put out this year, in “Blurred Lines” and “Give It 2 U.” I should also mention I’m impressed with these two because I did not think Thicke had these in him. All things considered, I’d pick “Mirrors” as a better song over both of them, but on FutureSex/LoveSounds it would be, give or take, the sixth best song. Context matters to me.
And yet, I still think The 20/20 Experience is one of the better albums I’ve heard this year. I still listen to it months later (a great sign of it’s quality to me). But I have a real hope for the second half of the album, due out at the end of next month.
In my utopia view in my brain, Timberlake sees the absolute domination “Blurred Lines” has (deservingly) had on the world this summer. He goes into the studio in full “F**k You Thicke” mode. He releases part two and immediately throws down the gauntlet for whatever album wants to challenge it for the best of the year (A silly move, because it’s fighting for second behind Yeezus no matter how good it ends up being).
He released a new single, “Take Back The Night,” while I was on hiatus/vacation in July. I liked it. Was it what he needed for a return to world domination? Nope. Am I running out of hope for my scenario? Not at all. One single does not determine an album. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” didn’t tip off how incredible Channel ORANGE was going to be, “Pyramids” did. There is precedent to believe there is still a chance.
Am I most likely nitpicking to insanely high degrees? Yes. But I stand by the observation that The Summer of Timberlake that we are in is a shell of what it could have been.
The Winter of Timberlake? This could be very, very exciting.
57 days until The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 comes out, and I’m on pins and needles waiting to see if I’m right or wrong in my prediction. But I’ll be fine either way.
Justin? Maybe not.
Connor Lenahan (@ConnorLenahan) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Connorlenahan.com. He is a freshman at Boston University, majoring in journalism.