***1/2 (out of four)
When you're in love, there's no way to look cool. In theory, love's a graceful, sophisticated experience, but in practice it's full of silly pet names and stupid inside jokes – things that make the other person laugh and onlookers roll their eyes.
In the seven years since his last album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” Justin Timberlake has staked out a career on being an impeccably cool dude--single-handed championship of the pork pie hat aside. So the recently married singer’s gushing, lovestruck third solo album, “The 20/20 Experience,” may not come across exactly on brand. It's full of lyrical conceits that sound like they've been pulled from particularly dorky sexting exchanges with wife Jessica Biel (“I want to find the alien in you”) and a survey of R&B styles that will be more comfortable on adult contemporary playlists than in the top 40.
But the other side of that corny type of love is that it feels warm, generous and effortless, traits Timberlake captures perfectly in this almost flawlessly executed hour-plus of music.
“The 20/20 Experience” is familiar. Songs like “Don't Hold the Wall,” “Tunnel Vision” and “Mirrors” follow in the nimble, synth-driven, experimental dance vein Timberlake and frequent collaborator Timbaland carved out on “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” The lengthy run times of “20/20” run the risk of giving off a self-righteous “these are art, not singles” vibe, but generally they work as immersion experiences that explore a specific sound to its limit.
“Pusher Love Girl” echoes classic artists like Curtis Mayfield; “Strawberry Bubblegum” sounds like a Prince song in its smooth intimacy as much as its goofy central metaphor; “That Girl” explicitly references '60s soul. Highlight “Spaceship Coupe,” which, yes, is about taking a lover to have sex on the moon, could pass for something from R. Kelly or The-Dream, but its buzzing bassline, over-the-top guitar solo and gentle falsetto also make it Timberlake's own.
The album's weirdest moments – the African-drumming funk of “Let the Groove Get In” and the atmospheric bedroom pop of “Blue Ocean Floor” – are also its weakest, but they remain inviting and comfortable. That's the thing about “The 20/20 Experience,” an album about and not unlike being in love: It's worth falling into and getting caught up in, even when it risks becoming cheesy, cliched or flawed.
In concert: July 22 at Soldier Field
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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