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Timberlake makes near-perfect return

‘The 20/20 Experience’ Justin Timberlake

Boy did he test our patience. But boy, is he rewarding us for the wait.

After seven years, Justin Timberlake has finally released his third album, “The 20/20 Experience,” and it’s a brilliant piece of work that plays like a musical movement. The 10 tracks (which average seven minutes) weave into one another beautifully as his falsetto glides over each beat. It’s an unconventional adventure that makes your bones groove. Seriously.

It’s hard to think of another performer who can make a seven-minute track continuously engaging and refreshing, especially at a time when a five-minute song screams “problem” for radio stations and our attention span gets shorter with every tweet or text. One of the standouts of the album is the eight-minute event called “Strawberry Bubblegum.” It’s smooth, airy and full of sexual innuendoes, and it transitions into something that’s heaven-like.

Timberlake was flying high off 2006’s multiplatinum, Grammy-winning “FutureSex/LoveSounds” when he essentially walked away from music to act. In the interim, he made one very good movie (the Oscar-winning “Social Network”) and several so-so ones, and almost seemed like another cast member on “Saturday Night Live” with all his appearances on the show.

But despite all his attempts to put music on the sidelines, the question everyone always had for him was, “When is that new album coming out?”

Maybe the former ’N Sync leader was stalling because of the monumental success that album triggered and the kind of pressure that places on a performer.

That burden may also be the reason why “20/20” echoes much of “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” one of the last decade’s best albums. When “Spaceship Coupe” comes on, you’ll think of “Until the End of Time,” and “Let the Groove In” feels like “Sexy Ladies/Let Me Talk to You (Prelude).” Like “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” “20/20” features producer Timbaland’s deft hand at the center of it all.

In some ways, it almost plays like a musical sequel, and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? Well, not quite.

Timberlake loses some points for the lack of creativity. Yes, “20/20” is near perfect, but it’s almost like he’s plagiarizing some of his own essay, and that’s slightly unfortunate. The album mirrors the futuristic R&B-esque vibe that helped Timberlake leap to the top of the musical ladder – only it’s not so futuristic anymore.

But it’s still vital music that rises above the R&B pack. “That Girl” starts off with old-school appeal, but dabbles into contemporary R&B with a swagger that’s also evident on “Mirror.” You can’t do anything but move your shoulders to “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Pusher Love Girl” kicks off the album with the right energy. Even “Suit and Tie,” the solid yet a tad underwhelming first single, fits in nicely here.

These days, it’s hard for any star to follow-up a massively successful album, and the challenge gets even steeper when a years-absence is added to the equation. But with a great album on his side, Timberlake should find his return to the top a smooth ride.

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