A few years ago, in the pages of this newspaper, I compared Justin Timberlake to Frank Sinatra. Oh yeah, that went over well. But at the risk of incurring more wrath, what I was trying to say then holds up better now, especially in light of new album The 20/20 Experience, released Tuesday.
JT is a style-leading, ease-exuding five-tool showman who handles himself and his career with crisp, old-school class. He rarely makes a wrong move. I'm still right, gang, so bring on the hate!
Timberlake, 32, stokes the Ol' Blue Eyes comparison by opening his first record in seven years with lush Nelson Riddle-esque strings. But he's no crooner. Despite his Rat Pack wardrobe and ring-a-ding composure, Timberlake alternates between a soul-kissed falsetto — prevalent on '70s-funky Marvin Gaye homage Pusher Love Girl — and a street-savvy middle range that further separates him from his bad-perm boy-band start. (No offense, 'N Sync diehards!)
He follows his own instincts, and has little use for trends. For a long time JT was more interested in acting and spending time with wife Jessica Biel than making music. So when he finally came back to the studio on his own terms , at his own pace (something he kept secret, which is almost unheard of in these Kanye-bragging, tweet-now times), it was out of want and not need. The guy doesn't rush.
He also has the chutzpah to make an offbeat album. Sure, retro club shuffle Suit & Tie, which features a rap cameo by buddy Jay-Z, was a big hit. And blow-out-the-budget end-credits ballad Mirrors could be bigger. But seven of the 10 new tracks obtusely wander past the seven-minute mark, including the outer-spacey Don't Hold the Wall and the Princelike Strawberry Bubblegum, trippy mood music best enjoyed on satin sheets. (There's rumors of a "sequel" album ready to go, and you have to wonder if that one will be more straight-forward.)
A few times, like on the word-clunky Tunnel Vision and Spaceship Coupe, songs meander a bit too much and border on SNL spoofs of overheated bedroom R&B ("With the top up, you're wrapped up, in my space lover cocoon"). But most of the album is so smart and bold, you overlook its goofier moments. It reminds me of Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, more good Frank company to keep.
Timberlake isn't the only one letting his freaky flag fly. Producer Timbaland, who's also embarking on a comeback, is all over this album, too. He's the helmsman behind such hits as Missy Elliott's Get Ur Freak On, Nelly Furtado's Promiscuous and Timberlake's own SexyBack, which was a far more aggressive song than anything here.
"Timbs" 1 and 2 are both trying out fresh vibes, with the producer forgoing his rickety marching-band beats in lieu of otherworldly expanses, like the closing aquatic wonderland of Blue Ocean Floor. If the album is a little too mellow for some, the guys make up for the chill vibe with the rambunctious, if out of place, Latin-boosted Let the Groove Get In. That's a killer track, and suggests that for all the Sinatra nods, Timberlake has always had a thing for MJ, too. Even in picking his idols, JT can't go wrong.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.