Perhaps the word that we should pay the most attention to in the title of Justin Timberlake’s third solo album (and his first in nearly seven years) is Experience. Because Timberlake, who’s again enlisted the beat-smithing expertise of producer extraordinaire Timbaland, has certainly offered one here.
The album’s 10 songs clock in at an indulgent seven minutes apiece on average, languidly blending all manner of lush Frank Sinatra-esque instrumentation—strings and horns—with experimental bleeps and bloops and loops and synthesized whooshes regularly reminding us that it’s actually not 1950 or 1970, but 2013.
Over the top of all that floats Timberlake supple falsetto, as well as multiple tracks which sport multipart barbershop quartet-style harmonies. Result: a trippy, immersive and hypnotic neo-soul experience that feels both vintage and oh-so of the moment.
Speaking of living in the moment, I should note that in October 2012 Timberlake married his on-again-off-again-on-again girlfriend, actress Jessica Biel. And if these songs are any indication, he’s still pretty over the moon about her. It’s love, love, love on The 20-20 Experience.
Unfortunately, it’s also sex, sex, sex.
“Mirrors” is an earnest, unabashed love letter from JT to JB. It references the couple’s wedding vows and the beauty of two becoming one in marriage (“It’s like you’re my mirror/My mirror staring back at me/ … And now it’s clear as this promise we’re making/Two reflections into one”). A whopping 34 times, Timberlake intones tenderly, “You are, you are the love of my life.” “Tunnel Vision” inhabits similar territory as Timberlake confesses that he has eyes only for her: “A crowded room anywhere, a million people around, all I see is you/There, everything else just disappears, disappears, disappears, disappears/ … I got that tunnel vision, I only see you.”
“That Girl” tells the story of boy meeting girl from “the other side of the tracks,” and them trying to make their unlikely love work despite the obstacles arrayed against it. He says of the moment he met her, “You fell from heaven that day,” and promises, “You’ll always be my baby, baby, baby.” ” Suit & Tie” flirts with dance floor sensuality, but it’s clear Timberlake takes great pride in his beloved’s beauty as they tear it up together.
The album’s lone melancholy moment is the last song, “Blue Ocean Floor,” a cryptic, ambient meditation: “If my red eyes don’t see you anymore/And I can’t hear you through the white noise/Just send your heartbeat, I’ll go/To the blue ocean floor/Where they find us no more/On that blue ocean floor.” It can be read as either a couple seeking solace and solitude together, away from the noise of the world, or as something …
Album opener “Pusher Love Girl” compares a lover’s addictive carnal charms to various drugs. “Now you got me hopped up on that pusher love/So high I’m on the ceiling, baby/You’re my drug.” Two lines refer suggestively to a guy being “on” and “off” his girl. And Timberlake compares his lady to marijuana, cocaine, MDMA (Ecstasy) and wine. “Suit & Tie” also includes a reference to marijuana use, as well as nine s-words and one “a‑‑.”
“Spaceship Coupe” imagines cruising through space in an intergalactic hot rod looking for a quiet spot to park, as it were. “Hop into my spaceship coupe/ … We’ll cruise around/Land and make love on the moon/Would you like that?” An interlude includes what Entertainment Weekly reviewer Melissa Maerz characterizes as “porn-star gasps.” Likewise, on “Strawberry Bubblegum,” we hear, “So tell me why, we’re making love like professionals on the first time,” as well as these other naughty nods to sex: “Little girl won’t you be my strawberry bubblegum/Then I’d be your blueberry lollipop/And then I’d love you ’til I’ll make you pop.”
As mentioned, “Suit & Tie” majors in smoldering dance floor sensuality and includes a guest appearance by Jay-Z, who raps, “Years of distress, tears on the dress/Trying to hide her face with some make-up sex.” “Don’t Hold the Wall” pushes a dance club seduction a few steps further (“Take you to the light/It’s dark in the back/You start moving/You put an arch in your back/ … Dance in the light/Slide in your seat/You started moving/You’re getting closer to me”). “Let the Groove In” plays with this double entendre representing both music and sex: “I know that you want to/So go on and let it/You can let the groove in/All night long.”
It feels a little odd writing this, but I have to admit it’s refreshing to hear an album in which a pop star of Justin Timberlake’s magnitude majors so strongly on the theme of love. There’s not a breakup song in sight. Nor is there a single moment of cynicism. Instead, there’s just JT’s gushing about how much he loves his wife.
And if he’d stopped there, The 20/20 Experience might have been a musical moment to savor. But this is Justin Timberlake we’re talking about here. And he simply couldn’t resist the urge to infuse all that sentimentality with a big dose of sensuality.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.