Justin Timberlake

20/20 Experience

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Once Justin Timberlake finished touring in support of FutureSex/LoveSounds, music making slid to the side as acting, endorsing, investing, and talent grooming took precedence. The few appearances from 2007 through 2012 -- through collaborations with Madonna, Duran Duran, 50 Cent, Ciara, and new jack ballad mode Lonely Island, often in partnership with Timbaland -- confirmed that the cutting edge was not his concern. Aligning with the Neptunes in 2002 and with Timbaland in 2006 were not bold creative risks either, but working with Timbaland once more makes it plain that Timberlake wanted to remain within his comfort zone. Along with co-producer Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon and fellow songwriter James Fauntleroy, the Tims have made a refined and distended follow-up to FutureSex/LoveSounds. Seventy minutes in duration, it's only four minutes longer but contains two fewer songs and maybe half as many ideas. Opener "Pusher Love Girl" sets the tone for the program; the first three of its eight minutes would make for an elegant sweet-soul introduction, but Timberlake's extended drug-metaphor testimonial over a flat, faintly shifting beat dulls the mind rather than hypnotizes it. "Strawberry Bubblegum" recalls a time when groups like the S.O.S. Band and 52nd Street released extended mixes of club ballads, though the bottom isn't as thick, and it comes with three bonus minutes of Sly Stone-style rhythm box puttering that facilitates more metaphorical macking. Around its 5:20 mark, "Mirrors" switches from an ideally shaped heartfelt ballad of devotion into a slog. By the seventh drifting minute, it prompts questions like "Is this where the stage hands will change sets?" and "Is this actually about himself?" Few songs are dynamic enough to justify their length. "Let the Groove Get In," something like a modernized hybrid of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Starting Something" and Lionel Richie's "All Night Long," is undeniably festive. The relatively raw soul throwback "That Girl" adds a slight Southern touch and does not wander. "Suit & Tie," a lighthearted and goofily dashing throwback, serves the same flirty dancefloor purpose as "Rock Your Body," drawing from early- to mid-'70s soul instead of late-'70s disco-funk. Timberlake referred to the song, the lead single, as "just the wink." It's far from the only one here -- a pleasant and grown but tedious release from a charismatic entertainer and exceptional vocal arranger who is not a great recording artist.

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