Watching the 2013 edition of the annual Grammy Awards, one felt sorry for the mainstream pop competition when Justin Timberlake took the stage for an incredibly high-profile television commercial for his first album in nearly seven years, “The 20/20 Experience,” out today.

Why pity Timberlake’s peers? Simple. Even after seven years without any new music to push, Timberlake remained the king of present-day pop – an interesting fact considering that, as Rolling Stone recently pointed out, when he released “FutureSex/LoveSounds” in 2006, “no one had ever heard of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.”

Careers were made and broken during the time Timberlake took between albums – a span of years he spent proving himself to be an estimable movie actor, and possibly the greatest “Saturday Night Live” guest performer extant. And yet, Timberlake’s return is marked by both immense self-confidence and rather boundless creativity, at least within the rather strict confines of present-day mainstream pop, which is hardly known for its adventurous spirit. Yes, “The 20/20 Experience” is a surprisingly imaginative, eclectic, deeply soulful and ultimately rewarding collection that finds the former Mickey Mouse Club protégé carving a new high water mark for blue-eyed, Caucasian soul music.

What strikes one immediately when the album begins to take root is its unabashed insistence in flying in the face of what is deemed desirable in present-day pop.

The songs are long – many clocking in at more than seven minutes, which is common in progressive rock, but hardly so in the world of “Gimme the chorus, quickly, and repeatedly” pop. They boast a blend of organic instrumentation and the computer-based tonalities that are currently de rigueur. Most impressively, the whole album rather willfully refuses to acknowledge the cut-and-paste methodology of today’s pop mega-productions, choosing instead to emphasize ’70s soul music as its bedrock influence.

It’s clear that Timberlake, who was a Bieber-level mega-star before Bieber was born, has spent far more time studying Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield than he has attempting to keep up with the Rihannas and Kendrick Lamars of the world. In fact, so dense are the arrangements, so lush many of the chord progressions, and so surprising the changes in key signature and tonality that comprise “20/20,” it seems that Timberlake may be trying to craft his own version of Wonder’s 1973 release “Innervisions.” Which might seem sacrilegious to some, but makes for a fascinating listen for the rest of us.

Right out of the gate, “Pusher Love Girl” reveals Timberlake’s new raison d’être: It sounds like the music we’ve been waiting for more than a decade for D’Angelo to release, which means Wonder, Gaye and Mayfield are all being interpreted here, with Timberlake reveling in his most soulful falsetto and producer Timbaland helping to keep things real but making them sound … well, real, not ridiculously overprocessed. Few could have reasonably predicted that Timberlake would open his “comeback” album with an eight-minute modern soul magnum opus, but then, when you’re financially as well off as Timberlake surely is, it’s a lot easier to risk alienating your audience.

Things don’t get any easier from there, at least not for fans hoping for the immediate gratification of Timberlake’s dance-pop past. Any listener looking for substance will find plenty, however. “Suit & Tie” is somehow both futuristic and redolent of ’50s jump-swing; “Spaceship Coupe” is ridiculously funky, to the point that it could earn a sly smile and a nod of approval from Bootsy Collins; the eight minute-plus “Mirrors” makes it impossible to ignore the fact that Timberlake has moved on from the early 21st century pop hegemony into a world where groove not only rules, but is allowed to unfold naturally and at its own pace.

Musicians, particularly those with an understanding of and a fondness for the greatest ‘70s soul and funk, will have no choice but to offer a tip of the hat to Timberlake and Timbaland.

Fans are likely to be split, though – those who welcome the idea of Timberlake growing by artistic leaps and bounds will surely take the time necessary to understand “The 20/20 Experience,” and they’ll be rewarded for their efforts with an album that clearly has legs and is likely to still sound good 10 years from now. Those looking for the young man who gave them the undemanding pop radio bliss of “Sexyback” are likely to wonder who this imposter with the epic-length songs and references to artists they are unfamiliar with thinks he is.

Let’s hope they take the time to find out.

Justin Timberlake

The 20/20 Experience


Three and a half stars (Out of four)