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Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience (RCA) 

J-Tim's return to music is a kind of manifesto on where the traditions of classic soul, funk and R&B stand in the 21st century. Where FutureSex/LoveSounds played Russian roulette with musical styles—it was Timberlake's experimental phase—The 20/20 Experience is rooted in tradition.

It's reminiscent of what Beyoncé Knowles, another multi-platform megastar in a crucial early-middle period of her career, did with 2011's 4: return to her roots. 4 got knocked for being less accessible and less commercial, and The 20/20 Experience might face those same criticisms. It's a strange prog-funk-R&B hybrid, a kind of concept album where most songs run seven minutes or longer. Timberlake, like Knowles in 2011, is issuing a statement of authenticity that doubles as a challenge to his fan base: Follow me deep into these grooves.

Timberlake's vision here is kitschy and weird enough to work. Borrowing heavily from the space-age sexploitation of 1970s funk bands like Parliament/Funkadelic, Timberlake has his tongue firmly in cheek as he croons on "Strawberry Bubblegum," and utters phrases like "You're wrapped up in my space lover cocoon" on "Spaceship Coupe." While these tracks tend to modernize classic sounds—Timberlake's Stevie Wonder-by-way-of-James Blake—the album goes full retro on upbeat soul ballads "That Girl" and "Pusher Love Girl."

Not every idea works; the Miami Sound Machine-riffing "Let the Groove Get In" just sounds tacky. But it's damned exciting to hear Timberlake put out something so ambitious and strange.

More by Sean Bottai

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