Jonah Bromwich will not be anyone’s “blueberry lollipop,” just so you know.
I’m not at the point where I can get specific with numerals when rating The 20/20 Experience, but I feel comfortable saying that the album is “pretty good.” I’ve listened to it about five times or so. While I can’t say how certain songs are going to land (i.e. how much I’m going to like them once the catchiness takes hold and they start spinning around my brain), I can give a decent description of what they’re like and I’ve been steadily thinking about them.
On my last listen, I started to realize how similar the 20/20 Experience is to Beyoncé’s recent work, particularly to her last album, 4. The similarities between the career arcs of Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé have been remarked upon half a hundred times by now–each the standout member of a hitmaking teen group, each crossing over into adult stardom with a powerhouse solo album, each sustaining that initial popularity over the course of at least half a decade. But what’s fascinating about the similarities between them is how they extend from the kind of careers arcs they’ve had to the specific qualities of the music that they make now.
Take for example, the songs “Girls (Run the World)” and “Suit and Tie. “ As first singles, it’s generally accepted that neither of the two was ideal. Each was (lazily?) sourced by the sounds in vogue at the time they were released: Beyoncé carpetbagged that Major Lazer swag, while Timberlake’s found the sweet spot between contemporary mainstream and in-vogue alternative R&B. Neither is particularly appealing as a radio hit and both were considered disappointments by large portions of each artist’s fan base.
But the two songs actually have a similar set of strengths. Each functions well as a kind of endorsement, both for the singer in question and for whatever brand wants to be associated with that persona. Beyoncé’s “Girls Run the World” is a girl-power anthem which perfectly represents the kind of independent, on-my-shit image that she’s been cultivating since before she went solo. Unsurprisingly, she used it in an advertisement, as the song appeared in an endorsement for her own personal perfume brand. Timberlake has done much the same with “Suit and Tie,” using it to give a boost to Budweiser Platinum, a product for which he’s a brand ambassador.
The similarities don’t stop at their first singles. Both second singles, “1+1” and “Mirrors,” turn inwards as downtempo songs which focus on the artist’s domestic bliss, anthems of dedication and love. (Beyoncé’s “Halo” is the model for both songs—“Mirrors” is actually more similar to “Halo” than it is to “1+1”).
After a closer listen, you can see that the entireties of 4 and The 20/20 Experience are comprised of a similar mix of breezy, uptempo jams that draw on vintage soul and R&B and lush, well-produced ballads. Both are docile, sexy albums that never risk too much or stray too far out of bounds. This has proven to be a very successful formula.
Returns aren’t in for The 20/20 Experience yet (and as of now, I think that it’s a couple rungs below 4 in overall quality) but I’m willing to bet that it gets an enthusiastic reception from the fans and that it helps Timberlake continue to do whatever he feels like doing. There are certain artists we innately trust and this artistic autonomy helps the two make music that’s critically respected, while their branding, production, and the occasional unbeatable song/hook help their albums take advantage of the mainstream adulation that both artists lassoed a long time ago. It’s extraordinary to see how these two artists, with extremely similar career arcs have successfully pivoted into both artistic respectability and comfortable corporate emblemhood. And it’s interesting to wonder whether or not our younger, more niche radio stars, the ones that are still emerging will be able to embrace a similar formula.