When an artist like Justin Timberlake shies away from the microphone for seven years and then unexpectedly releases an album like The 20/20 Experience, it's more than likely going to be met with something of a hyperbolic response. This is par for the course, though, so when you see Pitchfork make an observation like the one that the album mixes up "entire critical value systems," you can understand—as soon as you're done laughing and cleaning all the milk off your monitor—that these guys are really just using a fucking unnecessary sentence to say something pretty apt: this album is complex and simple, all at once. Timberlake isn't trying to bend space and time with his songwriting, so he smartly lets his work coast on the power of his vocal performance and Timbaland's mostly flawless production. This is a smart move, but is made all the more endearing by the fact that Timberlake's lyrical content is never so simple that it's alienating or frustrating. The 20/20 Experience brings with it a directness and relative simplicity that complements its bold arrangements and kinetic structure.
FutureSex/LoveSounds is a pretty special record, and saw Timberlake asserting himself as something of a serious artist. Sure, Justified was a great pop record, but FS/LS saw Timberlake and Timbaland taking things a step further. Of course, the album's ambition was its strength and its weakness at the same time, as the only thing wrong with the record as a whole was that it had a tendency to wander just a bit, here and there. For the most part, The 20/20 Experience strips a lot of the fat, and keeps things nice and lean. JT and Timbaland have build a collection of tracks that's forward and direct, with just a couple of breaks for things to slow down a little bit.
"Strawberry Bubblegum" is a bit more low-key than the rest of the record, but still moves forward with a rolling kinesis that makes it just as good as the rest of the album's dancefloor jams. Of which "Let the Groove Get In" is a very serious example. Seriously, I've probably played this song four or five times per day for the last couple of weeks in a row. It's that awesome. Unlike—as far as I'm aware—anything else JT has ever been done, this track is a straight-up jam festival, combining African underpinnings with a heaping helping of Latin flavor before sliding into a slick R&B coda. The rest of the album follows suit, bringing a ton of ideas to the table but never losing its focus.
"Don't Hold the Wall" is another serious groove, starting with a sparse Bhangra rhythm before giving way to layered R&B vocal harmonies. The trend continues on the rest of the album; JT and Timbaland do an excellent job of blending classic sensibilities (R&B, Motown, funk, soul) with a modern sheen that positively slices out of your speakers. If FutureSex/LoveSounds was Timberlake figuring out how to stretch himself artistically, The 20/20 Experience is that same artist now flexing those same muscles with some serious confidence.