Justin Timberlake, more than anything else, is a showman.
Timberlake runs into problems when he tries to make you feel. When he goes for something deeper in his music or his acting, he struggles because he never really reveals much about himself.
This shows up again in "The 20/20 Experience" (RCA), his first album in seven years, where what he wants to deliver and what he actually delivers are two very different things.
It seems like Timberlake wants to lead the new-soul movement that Frank Ocean and Miguel have solidified in the past year and a lot of songs here practically scream, "Find me important!"
On "That Girl," he more than succeeds. It's thrilling to hear Timberlake when everything clicks -- it's simultaneously soulful and envelope-pushing, mixing scratch guitar, warm horn flourishes, skittering beats and his sweet falsetto to build something immediately inviting and memorable. He mines a similar groove on the opener "Pusher Love Girl," where the music is actually even stronger. But when Timberlake starts going on about he's a "junkie for your love" and how you're "my heroin, my cocaine, my plum wine, my MDMA," it starts to unravel. Timberlake singing, "I'm hopped up on it... I can't wait til I get home and get you in my veins" doesn't ring true.
Timberlake is clearly more at home doing the whole smooth playa vibe, though "Suit & Tie" doesn't come close to matching previous lead singles like "Sexy Back" in pure pop fizziness. However, the futuristic, Prince-like jam "Spaceship Coupe," complete with a sample of heavy breathing and ecstatic screams as well as the groove from the Stylistics' "You Are Everything," shows that when Timberlake applies himself he can be as good as any singer out there.
He should also get credit for his world-beat ambitions, building "Let the Groove Get In" around an African riff reminiscent of Fela and letting the Timbaland-produced "Don't Hold the Wall" ride an Indian-styled groove until it falls off when it starts channeling Deee-Lite around the four-minute-plus mark.
However, his ambitions do get the best of him when it comes to the editing -- or lack of it, considering the number of five-minute, six-minute, eight-minute songs on "20/20 Experience." There's no need for the eight-minute version of "Mirrors," which somehow combines a "Cry Me a River" groove with a New Kids on the Block-like love ballad, especially when it starts running out of gas around four minutes in. And radio, which should really be Timberlake's best friend since most of these songs only get better with repeated listenings, will cut many of those songs right down to size.
Though Timberlake is one of music's biggest stars, he can still benefit from a strong producer to rein him in and help him accomplish what he wants. "The 20/20 Experience" is good, but it could have been so much better.
"The 20/20 Experience"
BOTTOM LINE Finding his artistic way, sometimes despite himself