For some people, certain artists can do no wrong, no matter what crazy things they do. Michael Jackson dangled his baby off of a balcony, but he’s still the king of pop. Taylor Swift’s personality is as fake as that Southern accent that she’s mysteriously seemed to lose over the years, but I’ll be damned if I don’t sing along to “Our Song” every time it comes on the radio. Britney Spears shaved her head and went off the deep end for a bit, but at this point, that’s just something we laugh fondly about. Kanye West — well, take your pick. But to put it bluntly, despite how you feel about him, he’s one of the greatest artists music has ever seen.
However, there are some artists who have avoided scandals like the plague despite being in the limelight. One of these artists has had a career that would last anyone two lifetimes, but he’s not done. To watch him grow as an artist while I grew up is something truly special, something that my mom and dad probably had with Michael Jackson. For me, instead of the king, I got the prince of pop: Justin Timberlake.
In my eyes, this man can do no wrong. The closest he’s come to a scandal was when he and Britney Spears split, which spawned the greatest breakup anthem of all time, “Cry Me a River.” The different stages in his career have always coincided with different stages of mine. In NSYNC, he was there in my pre-school and kindergarten days with “Bye Bye Bye” and many other hits that made choosing between his group and the Backstreet Boys as hard as choosing one child over another. When I was in elementary school, he dropped Justified, and proved that he wasn’t just the most popular one out of a boy band; he was a genuine star with phenomenal talent and had the foresight to team up with the up-and-coming producers, The Neptunes. He helped me get through my awkward middle school years when he brought sexy back after dropping FutureSex/LoveSounds, also finding the perfect union with, arguably, the greatest pop producer of all time, Timbaland.
But when the world was ready to see what he could do next, his music career stepped out of the spotlight, taking a hiatus that gave me an empty feeling whenever I listened to the radio. Other artists like Lady Gaga were getting ready to show the world what they could do, but there was something missing for me. Without even a hint of an album after years of occasional guest appearances on songs and some really funny SNL bits, I assumed Justin Timberlake was done, and my favorite pop artist had decided to call it quits.
During one particularly bitter winter in my junior year of high school, my good friend Billy sent me a message on Facebook with a link to a Justin Timberlake song I had never heard before. I assumed at first that this was another song he made a guest appearance on, but I was wrong. The song started with a juxtaposition of Timberlake’s tenor voice mixed with a bass voice, a harp and a deep-sounding horn section. The beat then transitioned to a faster tempo and sounded as if Frank Sinatra’s orchestra played a modern-pop sound but still kept their jazzy and swinging spirit, and Justin’s voice jumped in and out of gorgeous multi-layered harmonies, showing that after all these years, age hadn’t slowed him down a bit.
“Suit and Tie,” I soon learned, was his first single off of his new album, The 20/20 Experience. I felt like I had another birthday that month. It wouldn’t be until March that the full album dropped, but I was ecstatic to see my old friend come back again, and I couldn’t wait to discover what new sound he had in store.
The 20/20 Experience is the product of a more mature, developed Justin Timberlake who is determined to completely shed the previous image of being just a pretty face you’re used to seeing on the Teen Choice Awards and Us Weekly. You only have to listen to the production of the first song on the album, “Pusher Love Girl,” to know that this isn’t the same Justin Timberlake that took a hiatus all those years ago; this is an older Justin Timberlake that puts meticulous thought into his craft to have such a redefined and vast sound. The gorgeous orchestration that accompanies Justin’s voice throughout the song gives it an air of sophistication that gives it a soulful feeling.
This sophisticated and soulful sound is the backbone of the album, giving many songs like “Strawberry Bubblegum,” “Spaceship Coupe,” “That Girl” and, of course, “Suit and Tie,” their charm. Other songs, like “Mirrors,” “Let the Groove Get In” and “Don’t Hold the Wall” have a more traditional Justin Timberlake pop sound to them, but with the added benefit of a having a more experienced approach to them. The pop veteran is able to place his harmonized vocals in all the right places to complement the hard-hitting percussion of Timbaland’s beats without oversaturating the songs with his voice.
The most important thing about this album is that Timberlake dared to be innovative, and it paid off in spades. One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Blue Ocean Floor,” is surreal in the way that its minimalist vocals and production are able to pack so much emotion and depth; a lot is said in this song without being explicitly stated, and I always find one more thing that I love about the song every time I listen to it. Whether I’m driving late at night or lying down in a dark room with all the lights turned off, this song never fails to put my mind in a calmer place. If a stranger told me years ago that the same guy who was on the top of the charts with “Rock Your Body” were to make a song, much less an album, like this, I would have thought that my mom was actually right when she said I shouldn’t talk to strangers.
This album was everything I hoped for and more in a new Justin Timberlake album. The prince of pop had regained his rightful throne, and winter was slowly giving way to spring, making everything right again. In a poetic sense, Justin Timberlake had been reborn in a season of new beginnings. His boyish charm that I became familiar with as a kid became more mature, which was something that I could appreciate since I had done a small amount of maturing myself at that point. This album also coincidentally hit its heyday around the time of my first prom, so the whole theme of class really hit home and solidified the fact that Justin Timberlake can do no wrong in my eyes. He’s had a perfect career, but I can’t wait to see what he does next. His next few albums might not be as strong, and he may have already hit the high point of his career, but as of now, hindsight is 20/20.
Spencer Lee is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column, “Spencer’s Soapbox,” runs every Tuesday. He is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan.