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Superior Listenability: Why Justin Timberlake in 2013 is Pointless

Despite the fact that he seems to be modeling himself after the Most Interesting Man in the World, Justin Timberlake made a boring, corny album and no amount of Bud Light Platinum can change that.

On the first of Justin Timberlake's five Late Night with Jimmy Fallon appearances this week (because, you know, that's reasonable), America's sweet Pop-R&B prince coyly laughed off Fallon's questions regarding last week's Saturday Night Live performance, in which he attempted to zing Kanye West for his dismissal of "Suit & Tie." "Did it seem that way? I don't remember that," Timberlake said in pantomimed surprise, before exclaiming "Four chainz!" (TWICE) with Karmin-esque awkward eagerness. His denial was, of course, totally unnecessary. The response to his fairly conservative diss (tweaking the lyrics of "Suit & Tie" to "My hit's so sick, got rappers acting dramatic") was as he must have expected: Justin is just so classy compared to this loose cannon rapper! (We'll save the borderline racist implications of the media's mass characterization of West's moving live speech on toxic corporate hyper-commodification of art as yet another zAnY rAnT for another day.) West is chronically misunderstood, probably the most divisive figure in contemporary pop culture. Timberlake is, and always has been, the anti-West. He's the Platonic ideal of likability—well-behaved with just the slightest touch of theatrical edge (laugh along with the whole family at his dick! In a BOX!). Even sartorially he's the picture of a Good Guy, on his suit and tie and, perchance, fedora shit, the polar opposite of West's leather skirt shit.


Much like his so-called "beef" with West, Timberlake has nothing to lose and nothing to prove on his third album, "The 20/20 Experience." Even after a seven-year musical hiatus, he's waltzed back into the game with the assumption that he's still on top, as though nothing's changed since he left, and the world believes him; he's the literal Pied Piper of White-Boy R&B. A few things have changed, though; for instance, his weirdly sleek-and-nappy-at-the-same-damn-time hairstyle, Timbaland's decline from weirdo-genius trendsetter to complacently back-washing his Muscle Milk, and oh, you know, EDM and Pitchfork-R&B and some other guy named Justin, to name a few. Meanwhile, a quick rundown of what Timberlake's been up to over the last seven years: starring roles in "The Social Network," "Bad Teacher," "In Time," and "Friends with Benefits"; flirtations with comedy (SNL appearances, Lonely Island collaborations); fashion label William Rast; co-owning restaurants Destino and Southern Hospitality and tequila brand 901; part-owning the Memphis Grizzlies, along with wife Jessica Biel; executive producing the MTV reality series "The Phone"; donning the black hoodie Tom left behind at the MySpace headquarters; providing endorsements for Sony electronics, Givenchy fragrances, Audis, Callaway golf products, and most recently, Bud Light Platinum. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with any of the above (I’ve been known to fuck with a Bud Light Plat on occasion). But can we stop acting like the guy who hosted the 2012 annual Walmart shareholders meeting, proclaiming "I buy a lot at Walmart," is pop music's equivalent of the Most Interesting Man in the World? And can we consider the fact that, based on his attempts to do literally everything there is to do, coupled with the undeniably convenient timing of his comeback announcement (surprise—right before the Super Bowl and the Grammys!), that Timberlake may be coming back to this music thing just because he can?


The 20/20 Experience actually complements Timberlake's new role as Bud Light Platinum shiller quite nicely; the corporation's strategically vague claim of "Superior Drinkability" parallels the album's pseudo-artsy signifiers of Importance and Interest—intros and outros and zany titles!—that ultimately feel a bit empty and go down a bit too smoothly. The majority of immediate backlash in response to the album regards its length—the majority of songs clock in around seven minutes—but this is a misleading complaint (to compare, FutureSex/LoveSounds is only four minutes shorter; Drake's Take Care is ten minutes longer). Concerns about the album’s length are really about necessity and purpose. A seven-minute pop song is not inherently tedious, even to an Internet-addled 2013 audience (see: Drake's "Marvin's Room / Buried Alive," Kanye's "Runaway," Rihanna's "Love Without Tragedy / Mother Mary"), but padding a seven-minute song with embellishments for their own sake is cheap and ultimately distracting. Many of these songs would be solid, or at least inoffensive, if heavily edited—eliminating the awkwardly heavy-handed vocal samples of “Don’t Hold The Wall” and the, “Hey white people, this is spicy” arribas of “Let The Groove Get In” (whose title alone is a bit swings-arm-like-proud-soccer-dad), or stripping the first 30 seconds and last two minutes of “Tunnel Vision.” It's not that the inclusion of elaborate intros and outros is new to Timberlake, or Timbaland—Justified and FutureSex are full of these kinds of flourishes. But the past attempts didn't typically feel so belabored; the transitional elements of, say "Last Night," or "(And She Said) Take Me Now," or "I Think She Knows (Interlude)" flow far more naturally, without feeling over-wrought. What once felt risky and energizing about Timbaland's habit of twisting and turning his productions now feels almost formulaic.


What's most frustrating about 2013 Timberlake, though, is a disturbing absence of soul. "Mirrors," a song I found almost unlistenable in its tedium when first released, feels revelatory in context—because it's the first time in almost an hour where real emotion is present (before veering once again into corny obviation, by literally chanting, "You are, you are, the love of my life"). For an album meant to be a meandering, vibes-y experience, there is an uncomfortable sense of effort that distinguishes it from successful meandering, vibes-y projects, most notably D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and trying hard to play it cool is actually pretty uncool. It seems unavoidable that Timberlake was inspired to some degree by Frank Ocean's Channel ORANGE ("Blue [Frank] Ocean Floor" joke goes here); but after Channel ORANGE, one is left with a strong sense of who Ocean is. What can we take from 20/20 as to who Justin Timberlake is in 2013, other than a charming, happily married showman? (And the contented bliss of happy marriage, while certainly less interesting than heartbreak and tragedy, is not a legitimate excuse for the album's flatness—compare 20/20, for example, the love songs on Beyonce's 4.) And is he hinging our appreciation of the album on his celebrity, expecting listeners to project their knowledge of him as a happily married superstar into their understanding of the album?

With all of Timberlake's previous works—and I'll include *NSync's majorly underrated No Strings Attached and Celebrity albums here as well (the group's self-titled debut, while totally worthwhile as a relic of the Lou Pearlman Industrial Complex era of boybands, lacks the autonomy of their later releases)—there is a definitive sense of purpose, a reason this album exists when it exists. 2000's No Strings Attached was a pivotal coming-of-age statement with themes of breaking free from major label puppetry and bucking expectations of boy bands, leading with harder-edged, proto-EDM bangers like “Bye Bye Bye" and "It's Gonna Be Me" (which, interestingly enough, was produced by Max Martin, who's dominated radio-EDM-pop in recent years) and weirdo love-in-the-internet-age explorations like "Digital Get Down" (complete with quasi-hardstyle breakdown) rather than saccharine Backstreet ballads. 2001's Celebrity had proto-Drizzy themes of the bummers of fame and heartbreak, with shockingly experimental production veering towards garage and 2-step. "Do Your Thing" and "The Two of Us" were sophisticated pieces of 2step&b, on par with Craig David's far more critically respected material of the same era; "Up Against the Wall" could've been produced by garage deity Todd Edwards; and "Girlfriend" and "Gone" (both co-written by Timberlake, along with much of the album) are as good, if not better, than any Timberlake solo hit.

And while his solo material has always skewed grown-and-sexy, he's never felt so adult, in the worst sense of the word. In 2002's Justified, we find Timberlake playing the role of a complex, transitional young man—masculine yet a bit sappy, horny yet always a gentleman, figuring out how adult relationships and heartbreak work (and "Cry Me A River," as a song and a video, is by and large the ballsiest move of his solo career). The Timberlake of 2007's FutureSex is a smugly confident, established man, comfortable enough with himself to attempt more than just Pop-R&B, with more serious diversions into funk, hip-hop, and club music. Both of these solo albums are important achievements, and in both, he set out to prove something about himself, and succeeded. In fact, he's pretty much succeeded at everything he's attempted in his entire career, for which he deserves a lot of credit. But what, then, does he have to prove with 20/20? That he still, in fact, exists?

There's a lot to be said for bowing out at the right time, which Timberlake has even addressed in the past, attributing his disappearance from music to feeling burned out and uninspired. This is not only perfectly legitimate, but refreshing and admirable (and something his "Suit & Tie" collaborator could probably take a few notes from). If Timberlake has truly rediscovered his interest in music in 2013, inspired by domestic bliss and fucking winning at everything, perhaps the inadequacies of 20/20 will be a valuable learning opportunity—smart, talented people who rarely experience failure should probably be forced into situations where they lose more often. Because hey, it's 2013, not 2007, and that other Justin? The pointedness with which he announced "It's Justin! [dramatic pause] BIEBER," in a snippet of a new song, "You Want Me," released the night of Timberlake's "Suit & Tie" Grammys performance, is hardly unintentional.

Meaghan Garvey is an artist and writer living in Chicago. Buy things from her Etsy Store, and follow her on Twitter - @moneyworth

Second and third images taken from Justin Timberlake Doing Things.