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The orchestral swirls, the transition to a soul-man groove, the falsetto croon — there you have some of the key elements to Justin Timberlake's album The 20/20 Experience. The title implies a certain clarity of vision, even as any given song presents the singer as a starry-eyed romantic, bedazzled by a woman upon whom he cannot heap enough compliments, come-ons and seductive playfulness.
For example, in "Spaceship Coupe," he invites her into a "spaceship built for two" and puns on the word "alienate." In that song, Timberlake is being a cartoonish hepcat in what could be a raunchy episode of The Jetsons. Timberlake has always been a hard worker, and an early adapter to the notion of marketing himself as a brand. Perhaps as a side benefit to what has proven his invaluable grooming and training as a Disney Mouseketeer, Timberlake knows that presentation and promotion need not degrade the product. From his own good taste, he knows that product can be transmuted into art. And by instinct and ambition, he wants to showcase that art product to reach the maximum audience.
Timberlake has spent the buildup to the release of The 20/20 Experience debuting the music on The Grammys, hosting what was easily the best edition of Saturday Night Live thus far this season, and he put in five nights in a row performing on his pal Jimmy Fallon's late-night show. Creating awareness goes a long way for initial sales of what could be a tough sell.
I say this album may be a tough sell because the long song lengths — most clock in at seven minutes plus — don't initially come across as a ready pop radio or download hits. Then too, he's put out a neo-soul album inspired in part, he's said in interviews, by the expansiveness of '60s and '70s rock song formats. This is at a time when the musical landscape is dominated by the rough folk of acts like Mumford & Sons as well as glossier pop and country sounds. Timberlake isn't just making a kind of comeback; he's trying to bring back a different kind of music. Having labored heedless of the contemporary marketplace, he then put his business suit on and decided how to sell this material. If it doesn't, his brand takes a hit, but only until his next movie or TV appearance wipes away the smudge of commercial failure. But if it works, he'll look like the King of Pop he's always aspired to be.