For his long anticipated return to music, Justin Timberlake pulled out all the stops. He hired an old colleague, the hit-making machine Timbaland, to produce. He got rap kingpin Jay-Z to do a cameo. As executive producer, Timberlake made sure everything has that state-of-the-art sheen. And as the tune "Tunnel Vision" shows, Timberlake leaned heavily on the sound that made him a star: elaborate multitracked vocal harmonies.
Sure enough, The 20/20 Experience is ultra-plush all the way. Exceedingly competent — and relentlessly bland. This is what it sounds like when a pop star gets too big to fail.
"Suit and Tie" is the allegedly danceable first single. Perhaps you've heard it? Timberlake has, after all, been carpet-bombing late-night TV to generate excitement for the album launch. He's wise to work overtime on the sell, because there's so little song there: This little bitty two-note excuse for a melody sounds like something a preschooler might sing while playing with sock puppets at the kitchen table.
Timberlake has never been what you'd call a visionary, but on his last album, he showed a great sense of the pop refrain. This time, he's just plain timid. The songs have no edge, no zip — they're generic medium-tempo loops that last way too long, with a few clocking in at close to eight minutes. The length allows Timberlake to bring you your full daily requirement of mindless clichés. Track one: love as drug. Track four: love as sugary bubblegum. Track six: love as something that happens in a spaceship built for two.
There's a real art to lightweight feel-good pop. And for the most part, it's missing from Timberlake's latest. What we have, instead, is a celebrity feeling out his place in 2013, and you hear his worry. He's making calculations about the market, serving up a dim, cynical and decidedly limited vision of what pop music can be.