Justin Timberlake sidelines his music

Updated: 2013-03-24 07:58

(The New York Times)

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Justin Timberlake sidelines his music

Justin Timberlake's amiable "The 20/20 Experience" is his first album since 2006. Dana Edelson / NBC

Justin Timberlake sidelines his music

The last time Justin Timberlake released an album, in 2006, Barack Obama was the junior senator from Illinois, Jay-Z and Beyonce were not married, and iPhones did not exist. It was just a few weeks before Taylor Swift's debut album set her on the path to become perhaps the last old-fashioned pop superstar. Since then industry decline has all but eliminated the need for Justin Timberlakes, or Taylor Swifts.

In the meantime Mr. Timberlake signaled his importance in other ways: appearances on the satirical television program "Saturday Night Live"; acting in films both acclaimed ("The Social Network") and derided ("The Love Guru"); working on a fashion line; golfing. You know - a full life. Given all that, there's no good reason Mr. Timberlake, 32, should be making music anymore. And yet he's about to release "The 20/20 Experience," which could be mistaken for an exercise in hubris were it actually arrogant.

Most artists who stay away so long are trying to cleanse themselves of something - an unfortunate subgenre association, a nasty scandal. But mostly what Mr. Timberlake has been trying to cleanse himself of is music. That's reflective of his career goals, and also of the diminished value music stardom has in the current entertainment economy.

Justin Timberlake sidelines his music

His sustained fame as a polymathic celebrity means there's still an appetite for his music, even if he's out of step with most current trends. "The 20/20 Experience," an amiable, anodyne album that hopes not to alienate anyone but also doesn't offer new reasons to commit, is an album of largely inconsequential beauty. It's not meant to change minds.

That's clear from the first single, the breezy hit "Suit & Tie," which has the lighthearted bop of early New Edition with the vocal elegance of sunshine dappled soul groups like Tony! Toni! Tone! The song features the most negligible Jay-Z verse in recent memory (though this mediocre chemistry didn't preclude the two from teaming up for a North American tour this summer).

The album begins with a labored woman-as-drugs comparison, "Pusher Love Girl," ("Just tell me, can I get a light?/Roll you up and let it run through my veins") and, not long after that, a less labored woman-as-tasty-treat comparison, "Strawberry Bubblegum," which has some pleasant frisson between Mr. Timberlake's sweet high voice and the music producer Timbaland's guttural exhortations.

It's odd that the one unreservedly great song on this album, "Tunnel Vision," could be by Chris Brown, it's so modern, with its updating of Timbaland's vintage stutter-step drums and icy synthesizers. Also unexpected is the rhythmically exciting "Let the Groove Get In," which samples from an album of music from west Africa. It's almost not really a proper song, with Mr. Timberlake working a few phrases over and over, never building tension.

"The 20/20 Experience" was made with Timbaland and another producer, Jerome Harmon (known as J-Roc), and the songwriter James Fauntleroy. Mr. Timberlake handled the vocal production, arrangements and some of the mixing. The result is a smallness of purpose, with only slight variation throughout, like the deeply wholesome soul of "That Girl" or the drowsy "Blue Ocean Floor," which had it been released a couple years ago might have been called a breakthrough in chillwave, the fuzzy pop rock style of music popular back then.

Seven of the 10 songs are more than seven minutes long. In an era of Frank Ocean soul meditation, this could pass for artistry, but really it's a gesture of conservatism.

The peak of Mr. Timberlake's vocal feeling was "Gone," the 2001 'NSync boy band song that highlighted his pained yelp. Yet over the years that's been sandpapered to a more restrained move, all but free of anguish or ecstasy. "Mirrors," the most emotional song on the new album - seemingly written for his wife, the actress Jessica Biel - perplexingly features the most vocal processing, burying Mr. Timberlake and his heart.

Forget the album; go see whatever else Mr. Timberlake applies his talents to. He's learned how to be a musician who has no need to make records, the perfect solution to the modern economy.

(China Daily 03/24/2013 page12)