Starting in December 2019, I am counting down my top 7 albums of the decade in reverse order. Number 7 is Justin Timberlake’s third studio album released in 2013, The 20/20 Experience.
In a strange decade for pop, too many people have forgotten about this gem of an album that distills decades of R&B, pop, dance, rock, and soul into 10 vibrant and poignant tracks and completely redefined Justin Timberlake’s artistry. The 20/20 Experience did not appear on many end-of-the decade lists from music publications, if it did at all, but it was a true standout for its mesmerizing production, cohesion, and nuanced expressions of love. Here, Timberlake is a master of the longform song structure, where 10 minutes spread out into feature films before your eyes and also as a short-lived yet vibrant flame leaving emotions forever etched into your mind.
The 20/20 Experience is a complete portrait of love. The 10 brilliant tracks paint every aspect of being in love: teasing playfulness, thrilling courtship, sensual desire, hopeful adventure, and unwavering commitment. The pacing of the album is well-calculated and effective – somehow, 70 minutes feels just long enough to tell every part of its story. There is a stunning variety of production styles, ranging from the darker, intense, and complex character study (Tunnel Vision), the stripped-down, emotionally bare vow (Blue Ocean Floor), the sleek, suave soul (Suit & Tie), and the expansive yet intimate saga (Mirrors). Timberlake’s songwriting and vocal inflections inspire awe, reminisces, and hopes for our own romances.
Lush, cinematic strings open the first track, “Pusher Love Girl.” From the beginning, the boy band star announces his ambitions of new proportions for this neo-soul, R&B project. Over groovy instrumentals and a cappella-like background vocals, Timberlake sings to his lover playfully, “People call me a user / But I want you to go on and use me too.” His falsetto is perfect, and he continues to show off his vocals in the endlessly classy “Suit & Tie.” The glittering keyboard, old-fashioned brass band, and refreshing percussion ensure that listeners will remember this lead single.
The album plunges into darker, more intense sounds with “Don’t Hold the Wall,” described as “tribal,” “primal,” and “spacious.” Timbaland’s production brilliantly navigates through intricate sounds as Justin beckons his girl to dance. With “Strawberry Bubblegum,” Timberlake lightens the mood and sound, expertly controlling the variety of moods and sonic textures on the album.
“Tunnel Vision” is the pinnacle of Timbaland’s phenomenal production on The 20/20 Experience. Kaleidoscopic, dizzying, and even psychedelic, “Tunnel Vision” is sleek, taut, calculated. Justin Timberlake sings of an obsession that zeros in on his love interest: “A million people in a crowded room / But my camera lens’s only been set to zoom / And it all becomes so clear… I got that tunnel vision for you.” In the same way, spinning synths and sharp attacks from the orchestra isolate listeners in its dense soundscape. “Tunnel Vision” is a song that proves more rewarding with every listen because of its infinite details.
“Spaceship Coupe” follows with a beautiful narrative. Timberlake’s vocal acrobatics are on full display here as he imagines a ride through stars with his lover, where “there’s only room for two” in his spacecraft. The lyrics may be corny, but Timberlake is genuine – at the end of the day, the instrumentals are so extraordinary that listeners can forgive him. Playful ad-libs, twinkling samples, and impassioned electric guitars let JT’s vision unfold gorgeously.
Several tracks later, Timberlake reaches the emotional climax of the album with “Mirrors.” Opening with an expansive, almost overwhelming guitar soundscape, this track is nostalgic and sincere. “Mirrors” features some of Timberlake’s best songwriting: he sings, “The vacancy that sat in my heart / Is a space that now you hold.” The 8-minute track is a prime example of how Justin Timberlake constructs wonderful multi-part songs: he continues singing in the second half over futuristic and robotic sounds, thinning out the sonic texture of the song in preparation for the album’s stunning finish.
Ending the album with the introspective, meditative, infinitely melancholy “Blue Ocean Floor” is an extraordinary choice, and also the correct one. If “Mirrors” is the unbridled declaration of love, “Blue Ocean Floor” is the immersive peace, the penetrating gaze into the future. The poignant honesty of the two contrasting expressions of love heighten with their juxtaposition. “Mirrors” is the more accessible, consumer-friendly declaration of love, but “Blue Ocean Floor” reveals the immense depth of love Timberlake speaks and dreams of throughout the album. Delicate, pulsating synths warmly embrace JT’s vocals as he sings, “Under the water you scream so loud but the silence surrounds you / But I hear it loud and you fall in the deep and I’ll always find you.”
The power of The 20/20 Experience comes from the extraordinary union of exhibitionist romance and intimate romance. The orchestral strings on either end of the album showcase this duality. “Pusher Love Girl” opens with Hollywood soundtrack-like strings – deliberate and ostentatious – while “Blue Ocean Floor” ends with pensive strings that are eventually swallowed up by ocean waves. Justin Timberlake shows that he can show off is lover on dance floors and also whisper vows of unending devotion to her. The strength and complexity of his love is spelled out through these ten exquisite, unforgettable tracks.
The 20/20 Experience is a phenomenal pop and R&B album. If you only think of Justin Timberlake as a boy band star, this album will forever change your perception of his artistic abilities. Thrilling, moving, and genuine, this album truly portrays a complete experience of being in love.
5 Essential Tracks
- Suit & Tie
- Tunnel Vision
- Spaceship Coupe
- Blue Ocean Floor
*Note: The Deluxe version of this album includes two additional tracks.