'Justin Timberlake is a very talented guy."
That's what guys may grudgingly say about the 32-year-old singer and actor, whose hotly hyped third solo album, The 20/20 Experience (Columbia ***), comes out Tuesday.
The respect doesn't come naturally because it all seems just a bit unfair. As in, "He was in the Mickey Mouse Club, and then a boy band, and you mean to tell me he doesn't stink?"
But the former 'N Syncer is seriously funny, having hosted Saturday Night Live five times, and he's a legit actor who plays a folksinger in Inside Llewyn Davis, the forthcoming Coen brothers movie about Greenwich Village in the '60s.
All that, and he dates Cameron Diaz and Scarlett Johansson before settling down with Jessica Biel? C'mon, that ain't right! (True, he also dated Britney Spears. He loses points for that.)
But as Howlin' Wolf sang in "Back Door Man," what "the men don't know, the little girls understand." And from "Cry Me a River" on Justified (2002) to bringing "SexyBack" on FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006), Timberlake has used a hip-hop- and R&B-informed sound and sweet falsetto to score pop hits and command a largely female audience that cuts across racial lines.
So with The 20/20 Experience - and a tour with Jay-Z that will play Hershey Stadium and Citizens Bank Park in July - Timberlake should be set to own the music world this year. Right?
Most likely. But it's hardly an open-and-shut case. For one thing, pop fans prefer to make discoveries of their own free will - no one could have predicted the "Harlem Shake." And Timberlake's triumphant return after a seven-year absence has been oversold from the start.
In January, the mere hint that Timberlake was getting back to making music was presented as an epic Internet reveal. After Beyoncé and Ellen DeGeneres introduced him on the Grammys, as though Michael Jackson were returning from the dead, Timberlake and Jay-Z's tuxedoed performance of the single "Suit & Tie" was shown on TV in black-and-white, meant to convey Rat Pack style and class.
All that has surrounded The 20/20 Experience with an aura of significance: Get ready, because this is going to be important. JT and Hova's joint venture is being branded as the Legends of the Summer concert tour. Legends? That seems a reach for Timberlake - particularly as the word legend is usually hung on performers whose best work is behind them.
Is that the case? Hardly. Produced with longtime associate Timbaland, The 20/20 Experience is smoothly confident from start to finish. It's a deeply relaxed 10-song collection that is adept when going old school, with nods to Stylistics and Delfonics-style Philly soul, and a tip of the hat to Al Green, with whom Timberlake, a native Memphian, connects on the delightfully catchy "That Girl."
From the not-quite R. Kelly-worthy sci-fi fantasy "Spaceship Coupe" to the African rhythms incorporated in "Let the Groove In," the album's most ambitious and impressive track, 20/20 sounds great, with Timberlake's effortless vocal harmonies and Timbaland's inventive production.
Although 20/20 is instantly likable and reveals depth upon repeated listening, greatness eludes it. Timberlake sounds appealingly happy and at home with himself through the album, which goes in more for luxuriant grooves than snappy hooks. There's no conflict at the core, though, no essential tension to provide staying power to an album that very much wants to be an experience rather than just a collection of songs.
Perhaps that wouldn't be so apparent if so many of the tracks didn't stretch on for more than six or seven minutes. They typically transition into pleasant, extended jams that fail to build to any sort of ecstatic climax.
The 20/20 Experience is everywhere marked by an assured, easygoing elegance that seems to come naturally. The return of the very talented Mr. Timberlake could have been more involving, though, if he weren't quite so comfortable in his suit and tie.