When "FutureSex/Lovesounds" was released in September 2006, Justin Timberlake was 25 years old, in a relationship with Cameron Diaz that was about to end, and for all intents and purposes, still a kid trying to prove himself and sustain the post-*N SYNC momentum of 2003's "Justified." Today, Timberlake is 32 years old, married to Jessica Biel, and has nothing left to prove. He has, in fact, been hounded for a half-decade to release new music, and not been frantically tossing out stopgap singles to remind the world of his presence. When Timberlake announced his return to music last January, pop fans prayed that "The 20/20 Experience" would feel a lot like "FutureSex/Lovesounds"… but realistically, that could never have happened. Timberlake is no longer where he was in September 2006, and as his latest album reflects the euphoria seeping out of every one of his immaculate, 32-year-old pores.
Six-and-a-half years after effectively conquering pop music with a highly sexual, fashionably futuristic album, Justin Timberlake has returned as a more relaxed version of himself, with a brand new palette of musical shades. Despite the reunion of Timberlake and "FutureSex/Lovesounds" producer Timbaland, "The 20/20 Experience" is not a sequel of that groundbreaking album as much as a document of growth, crystallized within the medium of classic R&B.
The propulsive moans and aggressive come-ons of his 2006 smash single "Sexyback," for instance, have been traded for big-band brass, creeping bass and open-hearted professions of love on songs like "That Girl," "Mirrors" and "Tunnel Vision." Timberlake has always been a vocal force, but the main accomplishment of "The 20/20 Experience" is the expansion of Timberlake's vision: aside from Jay-Z's guest verse on snappy single "Suit and Tie," the album features no guests, and often allows its tracks to run past the seven-minute mark.
One of the year's most anticipated pop releases is also one of the genre's weirdest -- and most fully realized -- efforts in ages. There will be many people longing for the immediacy of songs like "My Love" and "Rock Your Body," but Timberlake has offered us something more complicated, although no less accessible.
Which songs on "The 20/20 Experience" are worth extended listens? Check out Billboard.com's extensive track-by-track breakdown of Justin Timberlake's long-awaited new album.
1. Pusher Love Girl - Like a more seasoned version of his opening "Justified" come-on "Senorita," "Pusher Love Girl" is an extended glide -- even if the drug-addled metaphor at the heart of the song produces some dubious lyrics, Timberlake's easy delivery will leave listeners hopelessly, er, addicted. The song morphs into fuzzed-out neo-soul during an elongated breakdown, one of the many mid-song transformations that occur on the album.
2. Suit and Tie feat. Jay-Z
The ode to high style is still not as sonically ambitious as Timberlake's last lead single, "Sexyback," but within the confines of "The 20/20 Experience," "Suit and Tie" makes a lot more sense. Funneling the succulence of "Pusher Love Girl" into a more radio-friendly format, Timberlake and Jay-Z -- who will soon be co-headlining a stadium tour -- demonstrate an effortlessness that probably took months to construct.
3. Don't Hold The Wall - Tribal chants and oozing vocal samples combat with rainsticks and spacious drums, as Timberlake correctly reads the primal tone and commands his subject to give in to her physical impulses. Timbaland's production is the star here, turning on a dime at the 4:20 mark and assuming a darker, more muscular structure. There are so many things happening on "Don't Hold The Wall" that it takes five listens just to process them.
4. Strawberry Bubblegum - The intensity of "Don't Hold The Wall" evaporates, and a cloud of electronic blips, string stabs and snappy percussion tears at the seams of a (relatively) simple R&B tune. Timberlake has rarely sounded more at peace as he does when he intones, "She's just like nothing that I've ever seen before/And please, don't change nothing, because your flavor's so original." The sashaying outro is pleasant, but the main track is sumptuous enough on its own.
5. Tunnel Vision - The instrumentation is vintage Timbaland, with fizzing beats abetted by the producer's signature ad-libs and vocal record-scratches, while Timberlake puffs out his chest and throws out a typically confident performance. The song's evolution is thrilling: not only do the ornate production details stack upon each other to create a constantly moving Jenga tower, the arrangement falls apart at exactly the right time, as Timberlake sings, "A crowded room… all I see is you. Everything just disappears, disappears, disappears."
6. Spaceship Coupe - From the groove at its gooey core to the lyrical concept -- interstellar romance! -- "Spaceship Coupe" smacks of an R. Kelly castoff… not that that's a pose that Timberlake can't successfully assume. "Spaceship Coupe" is admittedly sillier than any of the other "20/20" tracks, and Timbaland sounds out of his element here; JT sells the concept with aplomb, though, and even gets an electric guitar solo to echo across the cosmos.
7. That Girl - "Some 'em some Southern love!" Timbaland shouts during his faux-introduction of "JT & The Tennessee Kids," and Timberlake strides onstage to reside upon one of the album's shiniest surfaces. "That Girl" does not carry grand ambitions, endlessly rhyming "baby" with "lady" and keeping the whiz-bang production techniques to a minimum, but as the bass continues creeping forward and Timberlake nods to the brass section, the song reaches "immaculate soul" status.
8. Let The Groove Get In - The album's only extended dance flare-up, with canned horns popping off, propulsive percussion begging for movement and Timberlake's harmonized voice knocking against Timbaland's nimble pop arrangement. For seven minutes, "Off The Wall"-era MJ gets a tip of the cap, and Timberlake enters a zone reserved for only the most assured mainstream stars. Make no mistake: "Let The Groove Get In" will be exhilarating in concert.
Imagine being a newlywed and wanting to write the most epic song ever in honor of your life partner. "Mirrors" is Timberlake's version of that anthem -- how can you not think of the singer's recent wedding photos alongside Jessica Biel when he endlessly repeats, "You are, you are, the love, of my life," as if he had just soaked in the splendid finality of his romantic situation? Compare this album's second single to "Justified's" second single, "Cry Me A River," and aside from the steady presence of Timbaland's fantastically cluttered production, the difference between the song is clear: 10 years ago, Timberlake was broken, and now he is whole.
10. Blue Ocean Floor - An unexpectedly somber note ends Timberlake's third album, with the pop star digging for his most pensive expressions and pleading to be joined in his silent escape. Unlike "FutureSex's" "serious" song "Losing My Way," "Blue Ocean Floor" shows the growth of Timberlake, who gently steps into Timbaland's puddles of piano pokes and stretched-out melodies. It's a song that only a few vocalists could land -- imagine Thom Yorke trying this one on for size -- and a bold way to close a generally celebratory project.