Justin Timberlake was in his mid-20s the last time he put out an album. He’s 32 now — married and sporting a pompadour that suits a man
partial to skinny ties and tweed vests — and his maturity is undeniable when you hear how assured his latest album is.
“The 20/20 Experience,’’ which will be released on March 19
after a crush of publicity, exists in its own bubble, the kind of album that comes with, well, experience. Working again with longtime producer Timbaland, Timberlake sounds unbound from expectations and even out of sync with what passes for a Top 10 hit at the moment.
How else to explain the album’s many songs that clock in past seven minutes, unfurling like long red carpets with extended grooves that will surely be whittled down for radio edits?
This is the first record Timberlake has made not as a pop star, but as an artist who knows he can take chances. “The 20/20 Experience’’ is as much about Timberlake’s newfound confidence as it is about his faith in his fan base. If it isn’t a blockbuster, it at least allows Timberlake to turn an artistic corner.
His last record, 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,’’ was right in line with trends back then. It was a collection of slinky club cuts, meant to dance to among the sweaty masses, with cameos by rappers T.I. and Three 6 Mafia. By contrast, his latest trains the spotlight squarely on Timberlake, lothario turned husband, with just one guest appearance by Jay-Z, with whom he’ll tour this summer (including two nights, Aug. 10-11, at Fenway Park).
In the intervening years, Timberlake has diversified well beyond his boy-band days with ’N Sync. Unlike, say, Britney Spears, whom we perceive foremost as a pop star (and tabloid casualty), Timberlake projects a fully formed persona now. He’s an actor, a singer, a dancer, the guy your mother would like you to bring home from college.
He’s likable, someone you’d want to party with. We call him JT. His numerous appearances on “Saturday Night Live’’ and the late-night TV circuit prove he’s got a sense of humor. Don’t discount that: We love it when our pop stars don’t take themselves too seriously. Adele and Katy Perry do it right; Lady Gaga and Rihanna do not.
Showing Justin Bieber how it’s done, Timberlake survived the albatross of fame at an early age, carefully graduating from boy-band heartthrob to star in his own right. “20/20,’’ which is only his third solo outing since 2002’s “Justified,’’ comes across as a hard-won victory.
It’s not easy to age gracefully in pop music, a genre known as fickle. Timberlake, though, doesn’t seem concerned with staying ahead of the curve. If anything, he’s more interested in the bends in the road.
“Suit & Tie,’’ which initially struck me as a weak first single, makes more sense in the context of the whole album. It is not, as I thought, a nod to the throwback R&B of Bruno Mars, but rather the sound of a man easing into adulthood.
In that sense, “20/20’’ recalls Beyoncé’s 2011 record “4,’’ on which she turned inward to sing about mature love and the prospect of motherhood. She tacked on a club-ready hit, the lackluster “Run the World (Girls),’’ but really, “4’’ was about discovery and Beyoncé’s comfort in her own skin.
The same could be said for “20/20.’’ From the opening swell of strings, as if announcing the prelude to a movie musical (“The hills are alive / With the sound of music!’’ would not be out of place here), “Pusher Love Girl’’ begins the album on a blissed-out high.
This is Timberlake at his most wistful, so enamored of his lady that he thinks of her as a drug. Many drugs, actually. JT says he’s “just a junkie for your love’’ and name-checks heroin (“hero-wine,’’ for rhyme’s sake), cocaine, plum wine, and MDMA.
He’s unafraid to be playful. “Spaceship Coupe,’’ perhaps borrowing an intergalactic theme recently used by Janelle Monáe and Lupe Fiasco, has Timberlake with tongue firmly in cheek: “There’s only room for two.’’ There’s not even a whiff of irony when an electric guitar solo squeals right in the middle of the track.
Does he sing “Strawberry Bubblegum,’’ which compares his beloved to a sweet treat, with a straight face? I doubt it, and that’s why it’s so silly but irresistible, particularly when a Barry White soundalike intones, “Hey, pretty lady. This goes out to you.’’
A similarly retro vibe courses through “That Girl,’’ an Al Green approximation with a faux introduction of Timberlake as “JT & the Tennessee Kids,’’ as if they were a big band performing at a little club in the South in the 1960s.
Timberlake does occasionally sound guided by the less-is-more aesthetic prevalent in modern R&B, espoused by the likes of Frank Ocean, Miguel, and the Weeknd.
“Blue Ocean Floor,’’ the album’s closer, could have been lifted straight off Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak.’’ Over a stuttering electronic sample, Timberlake luxuriates in an unvarnished croon that mines the silkier shades of his voice. It trails off into a gurgle, subsumed in water. The JT of 2006 would never have ended a song, much less an album, like that.
And that gets to the heart of “The 20/20 Experience.’’ It is not groundbreaking — we’ve heard all these sounds and moods before — but it signals a bold move for the artist who made it. It marks the convergence of all his talents into one singular entity: Justin Timberlake, renaissance man.