No matter how hard you try, you can never really escape your expectations. And when the news broke that Justin Timberlake would release a new album for the first time in six years, no one’s expectations were higher than my own.
As a self-confessed boy-band aficionado and admitted ’N Sync concertgoer, I have long believed that Justin had raw, undeniable talent. To the casual observer he was just another manufactured artist, but I always argued he had the power to become the next Michael Jackson.
Let’s say it wasn’t the easiest sell to the guys I played baseball and football with as a kid. Later I worked on Bay Street, where the music of choice among the senior bankers and traders was more of the AC/DC variety.
You would think that Timberlake’s six years off would have dampened my dreams, but I secretly still hoped he’d recapture the pop-music throne upon his return.
Sure enough, early reviews of his new album, The 20/20 Experience, have been promising. The Globe’s Brad Wheeler dissected it track by track and offered such praise as “sneakily epic.” Coolness arbiter Pitchfork also gave its blessing, slapping on its “best new music” label.
And then Jon Caramanica, the respected New York Times music critic, tried to take Justin down a notch this past weekend. Reviewing 20/20, he argued that it’s “an amiable, anodyne album” of “largely inconsequential beauty,” adding that Timberlake has “no incentive to innovate, making this primarily a paean to brand maintenance.”
Easy there. Let’s not forget how Justin got to where he is today. Typecast by his boy-band fame, he broke out of the mould with unfailing praise for his first solo album, Justified. He followed it up with FutureSex/LoveSounds, working with producers Timbaland and Danja to usher in flashes of Euro pop, paving the way for Lady Gaga’s synth-infused sound.
Is he pushing the envelope as far this time? No. But he definitely didn’t mail it in. And frankly, Caramanica isn’t the best judge, because he didn’t like the widely respected FutureSex either.
The true test of an artist isn’t whether you can completely reinvent yourself every time you release something new. It’s to maintain your quality. Some have taken to calling Jay-Z “Lay-Z,” arguing that he’s latching on to younger, hotter artists like JT. I think he’s brilliant for being able to stay relevant.
Innovation is a young man’s game. Justin’s grown now. It’s the media’s instinct to compare him to someone like Frank Ocean, the cryptic and fantastic newbie whose first studio album, Channel Orange, was almost universally praised. But let’s see what Ocean pulls off when eager listeners no longer care that he just came out, and he’s fishing for motivation for his third album.
You also can’t forget one more crucial constant in the Justin equation. His stage presence makes his music about more than just the album. Even those who thought Suit & Tie, 20/20’s first single, fell a little flat, could not deny his brilliant performance of it at the Grammys. And you better believe his summer tour won’t be a lazy money grab. The epic FutureSex tour (yep, I was there) elevated the album’s music, fusing the tracks with brilliant choreography and eye-popping imagery on jumbo screens.
Should Justin be immune from criticism? Absolutely not. His lyrics are rudimentary and he needs to be cautious about becoming the new Coldplay, trapping himself in the same aesthetic. But I’d argue 20/20 isn’t a step back. It’s a movement to a more refined sound. Plus, this is only half of the goods. Questlove, the influential drummer for the Roots and a Timberlake confidant, let it slip last weekend that 10 more songs would be released this fall – something JT himself ultimately confirmed.
This is Justin’s time. Again.