Justin Timberlake returns too late, the thrill is gone
When you decide to keep your fans waiting for six years to bring your sexy back, you better make sure it's sexy.
Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience has all the promise of an epic: the loyal relationship with a megaproducer is re-established (Timbaland), tracks run more than eight minutes, and then of course there is the title, a big thoughtful nod to wisdom and perspective and such.
But for all its promise, The 20/20 Experience feels strangely hollow.
While they reveal little to us about Justin Timberlake the 32-year-old man, they reveal much about how hunger can motivate a musical artist; and the danger for an artist when that hunger is sated.
Where's the hungry artist?
Because if there's one thing JT was when he first broke free from his NSync brethren, it was hungry. Hungry to prove to the music fans and music insiders alike that he was the real deal — that he could sing, write, be original. Hungry to move past his breakup with Britney Spears while nonetheless letting the whole world know that she cheated on him, in Cry Me a River.
And, in the years that followed those two pop gems, hungry to prove to us that — all that earnestness aside — he wasn't taking himself that seriously.
He might've boasted that "them other guys don't know how to act," but he was also comfortable enough with his masculinity to put on Beyonce's catsuit for the SNL Single Ladies spoof.
The SNL fame, the revelation that this little mop-topped boy bander was actually genuinely funny, propelled Timberlake to a whole other stratosphere of fame. But it also made him feel that he could stay famous without actually doing much. For years, JT sat on his newfound cool: feeding it, here and there, with an appearance on a comedy show or a role in a Hollywood film (film roles that proved he could hold his own against the Ashton Kutchers of this world...but also proved he was not yet ready to run alongside his old Mickey Mouse Club pal Ryan Gosling).
Does JT have a tinge of entitlement?
But it all seemed like half-hearted efforts of a guy who became famous for his moves and that soulful falsetto, but who now seemed...not so much justified as "entitled."
Yes, he managed to avoid the trappings of a teeny bopper growing into adulthood. But did he quite manage to avoid the other trapping — of a two-album wonder trying to transition into a career artist?
There were also troubles with his public image. The last few years also gave us glimpses of the OTHER Justin Timberlake, one that just might be getting a bit too big for his slim designer britches.
During his Italian wedding to Jessica Biel, his singing while his bride was walking down the aisle was seen by some attendees as a distasteful attention-grab at the ONE point in time when all eyes in this couple might have actually been on Jessica Biel. And speaking of distasteful, there was that video that aired during his wedding, making fun of homeless people.
When he finally decided to remind people why he was famous in the first place, he did so by dropping a teaser clip first. But not just any teaser video. The laughably self-important I'm Ready has Justin soliloquying his way into a recording studio as he expounds on the difficulty of the artist trying to please his fans while also living up to his own perfectionist standards,
A JT with swagger
This, too, gave us the glimpse of that other Justin: the guy who takes himself VERY seriously and whose "World, take note, I've arrived" swagger now seems carefully orchestrated. But it was the last week, leading up to the release of the 20/20 Experience, that, for me, provided just a bit of timberkill, err, overkill.
There was his fifth hosting stint on Saturday Night Live, followed by the so-called "Timberweek" — a string of appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
And then, The 20/20 Experience arrived....not with the thud expected but, according to most reviewers, rather with a whimper.
Perhaps it's a proof to all that no amount of talent (which no one denies Timberlake has), and no amount of slick production, can compensate for the presence of real emotion, real pain, real desire to prove something to someone, when it comes to music.
That for all the bells and whistles, music, more than any other form of popular entertainment, tends to give us a glimpse into how the artist sees him or herself.
And these days, Justin Timberlake sees himself as just a bit too cool for school.
And for that reason, the suit and tie might be there, but the thrill is gone.
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