Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience doesn't officially come out till March 19, but since fans can already hear the whole thing streaming on iTunes, most critics aren't holding their reviews for the release date. The consensus: He's turned himself into much more of an old-school smoothie on this effort... and the reviewers consider themselves happily smoothed. The praise-to-negativity ratio for 20/20 seems to be running about 90/10.
Some of the positive notices stop a bit short of ecstatic, but the overall tone is overwhelmingly positive so far. Numbers and grades tell the tale, as Timberlake's comeback earned a top four out of four stars from People; four out of five stars from both Rolling Stone and the New York Daily News; three out of four stars from USA Today; and 88 out of 100 from Billboard. The critic for Entertainment Weekly waxed a bit more tepid but still gave the album a mostly favorable B grade. The only major outlet wanting to be on record as truly down on the effort at press time was Spin, which polled seven of its top writers and found them split, coming up with an average score of 6.14 out of 10.
A number of reviewers have commented on how relaxed and, well, long most of the songs are. "The 20/20 Experience is the biggest pop event of 2013 so far, but it's not quite a pop album," notes Jody Rosen in Rolling Stone. "Its sense of musical space-time is more elastic and sprawling than anything on the radio: The 10 tracks average seven minutes; songs unfurl into vamps, abruptly change keys, pile on unexpected beats and harmonies. The music is catchy, but the emphasis is on rhythm and flow... You might call The 20/20 Experience Timberlake's neo-soul record. (It has more in common with D'Angelo and Maxwell than Usher or Bieber.)"
Rosen is also one of several critics warning JT fans not to expect too exact a repeat of his previous blockbuster album, which came out seven long years ago—and insisting that's a good thing. "The 20/20 Experience may test the patience of fans expecting immediate gratification," continues the RS critic. "There are no songs as instantly infectious as 'Like I Love You' or 'SexyBack,' nothing that cuts as deep as 'Cry Me a River' or 'My Love.' But eventually the music sinks its teeth in, even on the wooziest songs."
People magazine's Chuck Arnold sounds the same alarm: "If you are looking for this to be another Justified or FutureSex/LoveSounds, it's not. While those albums were more about instant-gratification pop, The 20/20 Experience... is the more challenging vision of an artist creating a cohesive work rather than a collection of singles. Most songs stretch out for more than seven minutes, taking interesting twists and dissolving into cool codas that wouldn't make the radio edits." Arnold goes on to call it "maybe the best sounding album you'll hear all year" and adds that, with more classic R&B flourishes, "This time he's bringing romance back."
Contrasting past and present efforts, Billboard's Jason Lipshutz says Timberlake has "returned as a more relaxed version of himself... The propulsive moans and aggressive come-ons of his 2006 smash single 'Sexyback,' for instance, have been traded for big-band brass, creeping bass and open-hearted professions of love." Billboard also praises Timberlake for presenting an album that has no obtrusive guest stars, once you get past the obligatory Jay-Z cameo everyone has already heard on "Suit and Tie."
The Daily News' Jim Farber exults that the album is "an elegant sway rather than a hot strut." He particularly praises Timberlake's vocals, which "achieve a balletic grace. He Fred Astaires his way through these tracks, dancing over their melody with the air of an acrobat. It all serves the persona he has adopted and, by now, perfected —a lover able to balance a boyish eagerness with a manly talent." Farber also points out a couple of more adventurous tracks that don't exactly fit the paradigm: "'Don’t Hold The Wall' has the tabla-like smack of Bollywood music, while 'Let The Groove Get In' builds around an itchy and undulating African beat."
So where's the beef, if any?
EW's Melissa Maerz represents a slightly harder sell than most of the reviewers, though she too finds much to like about the album. "Dressed up like a member of the Rat Pack," Justin is just a little too slick and laid-back for her tastes. "He’s back behind the mic for the first time in almost seven years — but Justin Timberlake isn’t quitting the whole acting thing. He actually loves movies so much, he’s even playing a movie star on his records... As Timbaland’s leading man, Timberlake never lets you forget that he’s acting," said an unbedazzled Maerz. "All of which should make him a very convincing movie star, except that there’s ultimately not enough showbiz razzle-dazzle here. The songs are a little too slow, too long, too lacking in the flashy tap-dance energy that made him a giant solo success when he was 23."
The Daily Beast also found the album a little too languid for its own good. "Although The 20/20 Experience showcases Timberlake’s impressive vocal stylings and the songs are expansive, employing creative and experimental musical progressions, the album is lacking in Timberlake’s signature pop vibe, and the tracks seem to drag," wrote Jean Trinh. "Then again, perhaps all pop music is heading the way of JT—back to its R&B roots, as singers like Frank Ocean have exhibited (albeit with more thrilling results)."
Some of the seven Spin writers who weighed in on the album went more negative. Rob Harvilla says we should have been satisfied when he left music alone for seven years, "but we bitched and bitched and bitched (and made sure his ill-fated Jordan-in-the-minors acting vehicles bombed and bombed and bombed) until he obliged us with the creatively spent, justifiably smug, entirely self-satisfied comeback album we deserve. Too big to fail and involving too many crazy talented people to actually suck, this is nonetheless ludicrously bloated and almost offensively opulent," Harvilla writes, awarding it only 5 out of 10.
Fellow Spin-ster Christopher R. Weingarten, also giving it a mere 5, wraps up his assessment with an even bigger diss: "Playing it too safe, too fresh, too clean, the duo that made a generation's Off The Wall have entered their Invincible stage."
But it bears noting that two other Spin writers gave it an 8 out of 10, including Jordan Sargent, who makes a comparison to vintage D'Angelo instead of un-vintage Jacko, pointing out that "its ethos is similar to D'Angelo's once divisive Voodoo, a wonderful record that too was pilloried for being too into its own grooves."