It's been six and a half years since Mr Timberlake released FutureSex/LoveSounds, and marked himself as the king of the monumental pop/R&B hit. His confidence as an entertainer, and his enthusiasm for Timbaland's sweat-dripping, shoulder-nudging, heavy-breathing, distorted production was the perfect mix of sly-winking frivolity and ground-breaking audacity. But six and a half years away from the charts is a long time (even if it's been filled with movie roles and collaborations), and it was always going to be intriguing to see how he re-established himself as a hit-maker.
So perhaps the best aspect of his comeback album is that 32-year-old Timberlake now seems almost unconcerned with the singles chart - and the result is a much more engaging, classy listening experience.
The 10 tracks on The 20/20 Experience clearly ain't angling for radio play - six are over seven minutes, and the rest are close to five or over. But with those extra minutes, and Timbaland in the producer's chair, there's room for tracks to morph and change gears and for sonic exploration.
There are nods to 60s-era Motown, Stevie Wonder chord changes, and Marvin Gaye falsetto, along with some Memphis-style Al Green sway and an almost overarching homage to Prince. Lush strings, pumping horn sections, sweet organ riffs, they're all there, but they're happily folded into an electro, synth-heavy palette, accompanied by throbbing, warm bass pulses, and some trademark choppy percussion.
Opening track Pusher Love Girl might be a little thematically similar to Love Stoned, but its slow groove accompanied by JT's cheerful croon is deeply seductive.
Suit & Tie has that much-desired effect of sounding effortlessly warm and snappy, while also breaking into the heady, stormy swirl of Jay-Z's rap for contrast. Then Don't Hold the Wall turns the previous jazz-tinged melodicism on its head with a blend of Eastern and African chanting, layers of tiny percussion puzzle pieces, booming bass, and snatches of vocal textures which would sound at home on a Missy Elliott record. The vocals are essentially spun from the central command "dance - don't hold the wall", peppered with contributions from Timbaland.
So it's three for three at the top of the album, they've cracked them right out of the park. The mid-section tracks aren't quite such hard-hitters, but his seeming interest in phonaesthetics is pretty cool - the lyrics in tracks like Strawberry Bubblegum are a bit unimaginative, but the way he toys with their sounds and rhythms is undeniably catchy.
The next double-whammy combo comes with Let the Groove Get In, which sounds like some sort of futuristic mardi gras smash, and Mirrors - the contemporary version of Cry Me a River, except that it's about how much he loves his Mrs (Jessica Biel) rather than a break-up ballad.
Indeed, the whole album seems to be somewhat indicative of his happy domestic state, and maturity. Gone are the bravado-laden sexed-up club anthems (good as they were), and in their place is an album which could be the aural equivalent of a tuxedo - it has classic inspirations, but still works perfectly in a modern setting.
Verdict: Classy comeback that's more about the experience than the singles
Click here to buy The 20/20 Experience.
- TimeOutBy Lydia Jenkin Email Lydia