The 20/20 Experience is completing its fourth week of life, having already spent its initial three on top of the charts - the first since Taylor Swift’s Red from late last year. Since figures were collected last weekend, Justin Timberlake’s long awaited album hovers comfortably around 2 million in sales. Maybe more. In its first week, 968,000 copies were sold in the US alone (516,000 of them CDs), with iTunes clocking around 580,000 worldwide sales, making it the fastest-selling album to date on Apple’s iTunes Store. In an era where the digital piracy is the norm, that’s no easy feat. The last real offering from the pop prince came in 2006, with the release of FutureLove/SexSounds, only to appear in collaborations with other artists in subsequent years. Timberlake, shifting his focus to acting, endorsements, and entrepreneurship prompted many to wonder if a committed return to music would ever materialize. After all, since breaking from the highly successful boy band ‘N Sync, Timberlake was often tipped to become one of the biggest male pop entertainer of his generation. Fast-forward to early 2013 and a collective sigh of digital relief took over the Internet as an official announcement for a new album finally came. Phew.
If you were to believe the recent theory that Timberlake was forced into returning to music, his actions since the announcement of The 20/20 Experience would certainly argue that theory.
In a savvy move, the leading single ‘Suit & Tie’ debuted on Timberlake’s newly acquired MySpace on January 15 – the same day the revamped social network was launched. Following a performance of the single at the Grammy Awards, Timberlake and co. migrated to the Palladium in Los Angeles where they performed to a sold-out crowd. Then, a joint summer North American tour with Jay-Z was announced. Days before the ‘Suit & Tie’ video was premiered, a second single (‘Mirrors’) was released on February 11 only to perform it at the UK’s Brit Awards nine days later to great reception. Early March saw Timberlake on a weeklong residency performing on the Late Night show with Jimmy Fallon, as well as appearing on Saturday Night Live (as host and performer) – both NBC. The new album was soon available for streaming in its entirety through iTunes prior to its official release.
And, if this wasn’t enough to fulfill the desires of a pop-thirsty fan base, the “second half” of the 20/20 Experience – a second album, that is, is expected to drop late this year with the possibility of a full-scale solo tour.
More than contractual motivation is at work here.
The new material reaches into often-neglected territory by contemporary pop artists; evolving from the FutureSex/LoveSounds concept, the majority of the songs’ duration on The 20/20 Experience survive past 7 minutes. The long arrangements set a strong blueprint for future live performance adaptations; lengthen the third act of a song for an improvised-filled tour super finale, shorten to the essential verses and chorus for television if you must.
Still, the recordings may fail to enchant all the critics, but Timberlake’s live renditions of the album so far can’t disappoint. It’s not often we are presented with a pop star debuting new material in front of a charmingly tight 15-piece band (a.k.a The Tennessee Kids) taking cues off him, exciting the spectators’ experience further. The horn section has adorned ‘Mirrors’ with phrases not present in the recording. The new music was already fun before the album was released.
Dance choreography is never far from what most expect in a new Timberlake mega-hit, and The 20/20 Experience campaign hasn’t disappointed. Pursuing a more mature approach to dance interpretations of his music, Timberlake and his dancers perform a blend of classic jazz, infused with contemporary RnB. Anyone left wondering if a tribute to one of his biggest and obvious influences – Michael Jackson – would come out of the Experience may have missed subtle Jackson-esque steps incorporated into recent performances. This is not surprising, having one of Jackson’s backing dancers for the ill-fated This Is It tour, Nick Bass on-board.
Hype, marketing and mixed reactions aside, this campaign is already a music(al) industry success. While Timbaland’s familiar production is heard from start to finish, The 20/20 Experience has a sound that encompasses Timberlake’s previous two solo efforts into one, now subtly intertwined with futuristic soundscapes, early Soul and RnB nostalgia. Sure, yet another Timerland-Timbaland venture might disappoint some; Timberlake’s highly successful career, personality and talent could land him with any collaborator/producer in the world. But as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke…
And it works. ‘Body Count’ (on the album’s deluxe version) leans on the 2002 hit ‘Like I Love You’ with added wit and swagger. The percussive drive from Justified’s ‘What You Got’ and ‘Right For Me’ could have inspired ‘Don’t Hold The Wall’, a hypnotizing and paranoid soundtrack to a dance floor encounter. ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’, the calmer, mature sister to 2006’s ‘SexyBack’. ‘Mirrors’, with a beat heavily based on the 2002 breakup anthem ‘Cry Me a River’, now looks to a bright future through Timberlake’s lyrics as if to shed the unfortunate past the beat may have once represented.
Better yet, there are no robotic-Auto-Tuned vocals to be found, which have plagued (and arguably dulled-down) the charts for the past several years.
There are no signs of a bandwagon jump to the much-debated ‘EDM’ genre either. ‘That Girl’ takes us back into a soulful sound comparable to early Motown, before the most upbeat song on the album ‘Let the Groove Get In’ emphasizes a Latin-groove more reminiscent of Gloria Estefan & The Miami Sound Machine’s glory days than today’s often predictable synthesized (re)cycles.
Perhaps taking a note from recent artists to dress up, rather than down, such as Michael Bublé, Janelle Monáe, and even Bruno Mars at times, the suit (and often, tie) appearance for the campaign reflects the maturity of Timberlake as an artist.
But, forget Timberlake’s new polished, classic man image, the deeply emotive ‘Mirrors’ video dedicated to his grandparents, or his life as a newly wed. At the core of the appeal of Justin’s music releases, is exactly that – the music.
Now, with the added appeal of confidence in him, not conforming to trends out of fear of not maintaining “relevance” in the industry. We can let out another sigh of relief knowing that new pop music can succeed in this scale if artists follow the same approach. This is what The 20/20 Experience is teaching us. This is why it matters.