The last time Justin Timberlake released an album, Barack Obama was the junior senator from Illinois, Jay-Z and Beyoncé were not married and iPhones did not exist. It was 2006, just a few weeks before Taylor Swift’s debut album arrived, setting her on the path to become perhaps the last old-fashioned pop superstar.
But since then rapid industry decline and atomization have all but eliminated the need for Justin Timberlakes, or Taylor Swifts, or certainly the opportunities to make new ones.
In the meantime, Timberlake signaled his importance in other ways: versatile appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” which he recently hosted for the fifth time; acting in films both acclaimed (“The Social Network”) and derided (“The Love Guru”); working on a fashion line; golfing. You know — a full life.
Given all that, there’s no good reason Timberlake, 32, should be making music anymore. And yet he’s about to release The 20/20 Experience (RCA), which could be mistaken for an exercise in hubris were it actually arrogant.
Most artists who stay away so long are trying to cleanse themselves of something — an unfortunate subgenre association, a nasty scandal. But mostly what Timberlake has been trying to cleanse himself of is music. That’s reflective of his broader career goals, and also of the diminished value music stardom has in the current entertainment economy.
But while it was Timberlake’s success in music that allowed him the chance to succeed in film, or TV, or fashion, or baking (who knows?), now the opposite is true: His sustained fame as a polymathic celebrity means there’s still an appetite for his music, even if he’s out of step with most current trends. (Or maybe he just has a contractual obligation. Nobler art has been made for less noble reasons.)
He could have made a cabaret standards album, an acoustic singer-songwriter folk record, a ghastly dance-music immersion, a pseudo-Drake sing-rap hybrid. Any of those would have been more risky and more distinctive than what ended up on “The 20/20 Experience,” an amiable, anodyne album that hopes not to alienate anyone but also doesn’t offer new reasons to commit.
It’s an album of largely inconsequential beauty, showing Timberlake as an artist with no incentive to innovate, making this primarily a paean to brand maintenance. It’s not meant to change minds.
Read more: NYTimes