When Justin first teamed up with Timbaland in 2002, he was in his twenties — desperate to shed his boy-band innocence, gain cred, and get back at Britney for breaking his heart. Justified and FutureSex/Lovesounds were filled with songs about searching for love, refusing to forgive, and sex — which played a big part in Justin growing up in the eyes of the public. Putting “sex” right there in the title of his album — FutureSex — was a bold move not just for a former teen heartthrob, but for anyone back in 2006. Saying the album title out loud could make you blush, and that absolutely was intentional. The 20/20 Experience is baby-making music — literally. This is music for committed couples in loving relationships, not the album you’d want as the soundtrack for your one-night stand. 20/20 is about being in awe of love and reveling completely in its magic. A line like “I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave” would sound completely out of place on the record. 20/20 is Justin calling women beautiful, not hot; talking about forever and The One, not about taking a girl he just met back to his crib after she’s buzzed on alcohol.
On “FutureSex/Lovesound,” JT sings, “See everybody says you’re hot, baby / But can you make it hot for me?” On 20/20’s “Spaceship Coupe,” he’s less concerned with what a woman can offer him and more with making sure that he’s what she wants: “We’ll cruise around / Land and make love on the moon / Would you like that?” Maybe, perhaps, only if you’d like?
Justified and FutureSex were filled with allusions to revenge, dripping of sexual confidence and prowess. But through his happiness and newfound contentment with his new wife, Jessica Biel, Justin now sounds more confident than ever. And while he was never a misogynist, his preoccupations have turned from self-satisfaction to satisfying his partner, in ways far deeper than sex. He speaks, as the album title suggests, from a place of clarity: “Didn’t have to run, I knew it was love from a mile away,” he sings on “That Girl.” He doesn’t have to spend time asserting his sexual dominance or prowess, because there’s no need to. He’s already found what he’s looking for.
On “Don’t Hold the Wall,” the one song where it seems like Timberlake might get down and dirty, the most explicit he gets is describing the “arch” in a woman’s back while she dances. Where seven years ago he was bringing women down to the club floor to get his grind on, 32-year-old Justin leads his lady down to dance in their cocktail finest.
And there’s nothing wrong with maturing. As reigning pop stars get younger and younger, it’s nice to see someone like Justin — who traded in his heartthrob status — embrace getting older, embrace growing up. Lest he go the way of aging like Madonna — who throws herself into each trend with diminishing returns — he’s fully embracing his married, grown-ass man stature. It’s no surprise he’s set to tour with Jay-Z, another artist who’s successfully made that transition.
While none of the songs break new ground, it’s still an ambitious album that’s successful at what it sets out to accomplish. The straight-up love songs are especially effective; one can only imagine how many newlyweds will be dancing to “Mirror” for their first dance. It’s Justin at his most emotionally naked: “‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now / I’m lookin’ right at the other half of me.” His gratitude bleeds through him, and it’s by far the most direct, honest love song he’s ever made.
To some, the extended outros may feel excessive, indulgent. But considering the aim of the album, about love and a soundtrack for lovemaking, it makes sense. Nothing feels abrupt. Timbaland and producer J-Roc expand on ideas, take time to linger and explore different movements, tempos, and feelings, letting Timberlake get lost in their beats. Sometimes you’re in it with them, sometimes you’re not. And this can change with every listen.
“Spaceship Coupe” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” drag on for longer than is probably advisable, and the obligatory Latin party track “Let the Groove Get In” feels a little cheesy and disjointed from the rest of the album. Most of the song is Timberlake asking, “Are you comfortable, right there, right there? / Let the groove get in, there, there, right there” over and over, while what sounds like African drumming, brass, and ’80s smooth jazz keyboard all collide. It’ll most definitely be a hit in Zumba classes, though.
But on “Tunnel Vision,” one of the album’s standout tracks, the duo finds the sweet spot in their chemistry. The real Timberlake-Timbaland magic happens when JT’s falsetto plays against the dark, stuttering, foreboding production that Timbo does best. The magic lies in that tension. It’s what keeps lyrics like “Don’t know why, but girl, I’m feeling so close to you / Maybe it’s this ocean view, I’m so emotional” from feeling too syrupy-sweet.
Timberlake didn’t have to make an album this good. 20/20 could have been complete train wreck and it would still sell thousands of copies; he has the public on his side, in the palm of his hands. It could have been, like Questlove suggests, an ill-advised attempt to jump on the electro-dance-rap trend du jour. But by operating outside the need to be relevant, he’s ensuring the longevity of his brand and widening his appeal — so that even Jessica Biel’s grandparents will want to bump his music around the house. 20/20 may not be shattering any conventions, but it is taking him beyond someone interested in churning out club hits made for horny college kids.
By far the most surprising and adventurous track on the album is “Blue Ocean Floor,” practically a Sigur Ros song, sparse in the theatrics and heavy on the ambient ocean wave effects. It’s also maybe the only track on the album without drums, save for a heartbeat. It’s an intimate song of devotion and love, against all odds and to no end. The production is melancholic and unsettling, and it sounds like Timbaland may be employing some backmasking. As an album closer, it leaves a strange taste in your mouth; it’s a reminder of just how far Timberlake has come — the “SexyBack” days seem like a distant memory in comparison. And after this album, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, as he says himself on “Mirror”: “So now I say good-bye to the old me, it’s already gone / And I can’t wait wait wait wait to get you home.”