During the first track on The 20/20 Experience, the first of two 2013 albums from Justin Timberlake, the multi-hyphenate superstar describes the love of his life as “my drug,” “my dealer” (yes, both), “my heroin” (rhymes with “wine”), “my cocaine,” “my nicotine,” “my blue dream” and “my hydroponic jelly bean.” (OK, that last one’s just plain weird.) He could have just as easily been describing his relationship with the American public, who gobbled up every morsel on his multi-course musical comeback menu with the vigor of, well, an addict. America simply couldn’t get enough of the suit and tie this year.
Or could they? Years from now, will we remember this year as the latest triumph in Timberlake’s impressive multi-decade streak, or the slow fade of an artist with plenty of energy but little substance beneath the style? The evidence from the first half of the year suggests the former, but the second half of the year brought its fair share of disappointments, casting a shadow over the Year of JT.
Let’s not get melodramatic. Don’t cry for Justin Timberlake. Don’t even shed a tear. He’s doing fine. He’s in the new Coen Brothers movie. Either he’s got incriminating photos of Lorne Michaels hiding in his closet, or he’s made lifelong companions and comedic compatriots with the cast and crew on Saturday Night Live. His tour is selling out like few others. And he’s still got the goods: versatile vocals, limber choreography, expressive stagecraft. He’s a pop star, one of the most baggage-free in recent memory.
Therein lies a possible failing, though. Because Timberlake’s public persona is so airtight, so consistent, so universally appealing, he’s closed himself off to some of the more interesting contours that generate great pop music. Particularly on the second half of his 20/20 Experience, his music is lively but anonymous. Either he’s refusing to let us see the darkness hiding beneath, or he’s really got nothing but ebullience to share with the world.
And ebullience is fine. But it might not be enough for the full-on pop culture assault that Timberlake presented in 2013.
The most exhilarating moment of my experience with JT’s music this year came when I pressed “Play” on “Pusher Love Girl,” waiting to envelop myself in the first Timberlake record since the massively successful and genuinely game-changing FutureSex/LoveSounds. The strings swelled, and the possibilities were endless. The album delivered, both in length and in diversity. I kept listening, over and over, growing to love even the songs I initially had little warmth for. I love the density of the record, even though it contributed to some bloating track lengths and arguably could have used an editor to rein in Timbaland. (I’m imagining him gleefully pressing all of the buttons in the studio until a security guard drags him out.) I love that it’s insistently retro and defiantly anti-modern – you won’t find any dubstep or EDM on this soulful, swinging collection of tunes.
But by the end of the year, JT’s act started to feel a little stale. Maybe Timberlake relied too heavily on nostalgia for his earlier eras in his televised performances. During his five-night stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in March, he performed one new song from part 1 of 20/20 every night – except for the last, on which he performed a classy medley of four of his biggest hits. On the MTV Video Music Awards in September, he sashayed and swaggered around the stage for nearly 16 minutes, leaving only a few moments at the end for his new music. The performance, while technically astounding and massively entertaining, felt more like a Lifetime Achievement acknowledgment for a retiring legend than a showcase for a musician at the top of his creative game.
Maybe aggressively lengthy tracks like “Amnesia” and “True Blood” on The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 simply overstayed their welcome. The idea that Timberlake’s long songs were his undoing strikes me as reductive – after all, “What Goes Around Comes Around” is one of his best songs despite clocking in at well over 7 minutes. The problem with the longer songs, though, is that they often felt lazy and protracted rather than dense and meaningful. With the exception of “Pusher Love Girl” and “Mirrors,” which use the extra few minutes to complicate the story, the longer songs simply repeat the same beats a few too many times. On party tracks like “Take Back the Night” and “Let the Groove Get In,” this approach makes sense. On a seedy banger like “True Blood,” nine minutes feels like excess for the sake of excess.
The cracks in Timberlake’s façade also started to show when he found himself mired in two minor controversies over the summer. First, his tone-deaf video for “Tunnel Vision” bore so many similarities to “Blurred Lines” (most notably, clothed men gawking at naked women) that Timberlake was either consciously evoking Thicke’s hit to make a statement about it or aping the controversial style of the video for some free publicity. Either way, the video quickly fell out of the public consciousness.
A few weeks later, Timberlake released the first single from the second half of his 20/20 Experience. “Take Back the Night” is a good song, evocative of Michael Jackson, but the title rankled some listeners, who felt the song’s lyrics were incongruous with the title of an organization that promotes awareness and prevention of sexual assault. Timberlake quickly released a statement assuring his fans that he had not heard of the organization and that he hoped this conversation would spark interest in Take Back the Night. That’s fine, but the question remains: does no one on Timberlake’s team use Google?
Given the quick and tidy nature of these controversies, they probably weren’t enough to singlehandedly undo Timberlake’s momentum. It’s also possible that he saturated the market. The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 has sold only a fraction of its predecessor’s massive haul. More importantly, no one’s talking about these songs. “Take Back the Night” and “TKO” have floundered on the pop charts, and nothing from the second half was remotely in the Grammy conversation. 2 of 2 might be to blame for this poor showing. He chose to submit his entire collection as one album, possibly alienating Grammy voters who would have preferred to honor one installment (likely the first) over the other. As a result, he was left with five Grammy nominations and no love in the major categories. Not exactly the high-profile comeback JT was probably hoping for when he staged his return.
Of course, when we talk about Timberlake, we can’t just talk about the music, because the 20/20 experience is really about the brand, cultivated in delightful bits of late-night talk-show tomfoolery with Jimmy Fallon and slick professionalism in his live musical performances. Take note of the way that Timberlake swaggers around the set of Saturday Night Live in his fifth stint as host and second as musical guest. He introduces his own musical performance. He appears in nearly every sketch. He never breaks a sweat.
“Never breaking a sweat” might be Timberlake’s primary appeal, and it’s certainly the easiest to spot. Watch Timberlake’s epic VMA medley alongside any of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” performances from this year, and you’ll see the difference between trying hard and hardly trying.
Timberlake should try harder. His sweatiest performance of the year was on the American Music Awards, where he delivered a messy, passionate performance of his country-leaning breakup song “Drink You Away.” For once, Timberlake seemed not to care if a few notes were out of place, if his movement wasn’t perfectly synchronized with his unfailingly energetic backup band The Tennessee Kids. If “Suit & Tie” represents the kind of person Timberlake wants to see when he looks in the mirror(s), “Drink You Away” represents what’s actually on the other side of the glass, if only he’ll acknowledge it.
By December, Timberlake just seemed burned out. During his second Saturday Night Live appearance of the year, as musical guest on the Christmas show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, he opted to sing two uninspired deep cuts from 2 of 2. Both performances were flawlessly executed, with a stunning laser display complementing some fancy footwork on “Only When I Walk Away” and a stripped-down acoustic arrangement on the classically sweet ballad “Pair of Wings.” But neither one showcased an artist in control of his authorial voice. With no No. 1 singles to fete, Timberlake lost track of his own narrative.
Is this the end of Justin Timberlake as a cultural force? Not by a long shot. Audiences ate up his silly Jimmy Fallon and Robin Gibb impressions on the SNL episode, and his presence in the riotous “Please Mr. Kennedy” sequence in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis will keep him present in the upcoming movie awards frenzy. But musically, Timberlake needs to chart a new course. He’s expressed interest in recording a country album and proved adept at folk covers in the Coens’ movie. He wrote one of the most upbeat tracks on Beyonce’s latest album (the sexy “Blow”). In August, I suggested that Timberlake needs to tear himself away from his long-standing musical partner Timbaland, and I stand by this assessment. Timberlake can’t rest comfortably on his laurels anymore. He needs to show us another gear we haven’t seen, as he did with Justified and “SexyBack” and The Social Network even “History of Rap” with Fallon.
Unless he breaks his streak, Timberlake won’t be releasing another new album for quite a while. In the meantime, he should find an outlet to hone his craft and expand his range. My suggestion? NBC should hire Justin Timberlake for a monthly primetime variety show. He can invite his friends to collaborate on songs from different genres, keep himself limber with some comedy sketches, and maybe even test out some new material. This scenario is a win-win-win: audiences get to watch Timberlake have fun and show off his talents once a month; NBC gets to bolster their floundering primetime schedule with one of the most well-liked celebrities alive; and Timberlake gets plenty of time to do whatever else he wants or needs to do in the meantime. (No Ben Affleck movies, please.)
Whether Justin Timberlake takes my suggestions or not is beside the point. To restore the relevance he seemed to have in the beginning of the year and might still have by the end of it, Justin Timberlake needs to transform again. I don’t want JT to become that guy who always shows up and makes people laugh on SNL while his undeniable musical talents go to waste. The next act begins now. Let’s hope Justin is ready.