opinion by PETER TABAKIS
Only a few months ago Justin Timberlake released The 20/20 Experience, his first collection of new material in seven years. And what a muddled, overstuffed, and at times fabulous album it was. I guess releasing a blockbuster LP (the year’s best-selling, so far) felt so nice he had to try it twice. Thus, here comes The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2, its prompt and inelegantly named sequel.
Hurray? Well, yeah actually.
The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 feels like a satisfying and true follow-up to FutureSex/LoveSounds
From the moment 2 of 2 was officially announced last May, I’ve been filled with mounting dread. Dread that the sequel would, at best, be a swollen collection of studio odds and ends. Or worse, the nightmare scenario: another hour-plus slog through boldly reimagined throwbacks in the classic style of Timberlake’s R&B and soul influences. Turns out, very little of 2 of 2’s sound connects it to its (slightly) older sibling. And more often than not, the new album surpasses its predecessor, by leaps and bounds. Best of all, The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 feels like a satisfying and true follow-up to FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake’s strongest album to date.
That we’ve dodged a bullet and received a pretty terrific Justin Timberlake album only raises a number of questions about the whole 20/20 project. Having gone seven years without a studio release, why the sudden flood? Why risk audience fatigue with this deluge of new music? Why force one conceptual (and physical) package on two very different albums? Why does 2 of 2’s presentation, from its awful title to its barely reworked cover art, seem so inexplicably lazy? Was this Timberlake’s master plan all along? If so, then your guess is as good as mine for why the first collection of songs wasn’t called The 20/20 Experience 1 of 2 from the start.
Some have suggested Timberlake brazenly rushed out his 2013 material to goose ticket sales for his recent co-headlining tour with Jay Z, and his massive upcoming solo outing, which would ultimately fulfill a contractual obligation with Live Nation. That agreement allegedly hinged on giving Timberlake’s tequila brand star-treatment at concert venues across North America. I’m slightly less cynical about the confounding roll-out of these two albums – oh, I mean the two parts of the same jumbled album – as both are obviously products of such labor and love from Timberlake and his collaborators.
This, in a way, is the problem with his 20/20 Experience. It’s as if Timberlake, so enamored with his work, can’t bring himself to leave anything out. That much was already clear on the first part of The 20/20 Experience, an album whose ten songs (many of which were stellar) began to overstay their welcome about halfway through their runtimes. Mercifully, 2 of 2’s twelve songs (when you include the hidden acoustic ballad “Pair of Wings”) seem less padded, though they’re about as long, by maintaining momentum without flagging into stylistically disjointed codas. (The notable exception being “True Blood,” a song I so irrationally enjoy throughout its nine-plus minutes that I’m happy to contradict myself.)
Both parts of The 20/20 Experience are unapologetically retro. Only on 2 of 2, Timberlake and longtime collaborator Timbaland largely mine from their own early-2000s glory days, rather than exhume bits and pieces from definitive works by Stevie Wonder and Prince. Being a JT album, Michael Jackson continues to make requisite appearances on 2 of 2, both overtly (“Take Back the Night”) and merely in spirit (“True Blood”). That the 20/20 albums escape the musty past is fundamentally thanks to Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, who keep things sounding exhilaratingly vibrant and current, whether the vintage they’re working with is ten years old or upwards of forty.
Unlike part one of The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2 is better experienced in a single sitting.
Unlike part one of The 20/20 Experience, 2 of 2 is better experienced in a single sitting. It never reaches such peaks as “Pusher Love Girl” or “Let the Groove In,” and nothing comes close to the triumphant “Mirrors,” but 2 of 2 doesn’t require a few blindingly bright songs to save it. The album sounds instantly familiar, though never stale, and frankly it’s a joy to hear Timberlake and Timbaland rediscover the giddy chemistry that made FutureSex/LoveSongs a contemporary pop milestone.
For all its sonic playfulness, 2 of 2 hits all the obligatory beats, usually at slower tempos. There are some unhurried bangers (album opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” and the Drake-featuring “Cabaret”), a couple of by-the-numbers slow jams (“You Got It On” and “Amnesia”), and a pair of ballads that occupy the album’s extended final track (the lovely, mid-tempo “Not a Bad Thing” and the saccharine acoustic throwaway “Pair of Wings”). The thrilling, Missy-channeling “Murder” stands high above adequate lead singles “TKO” and “Take Back the Night” as 2 of 2’s standout dance-floor track. Like its precursor, 2 of 2 reaches greatness when Timberlake veers furthest from R&B, as he does on the blaring and delirious fantasia “Only When I Walk Away” and the Southern-fried “Drink You Away,” which features both a Hammond organ and a verse lifted from Bon Jovi.
Since both parts of The 20/20 Experience were recorded at once, it makes sense that they suffer from the same frustrating flaws: both contain some atrocious lyrics, feel thematically and structurally sloppy, and are in need of liberal editing. Only, those first two faults seem like minor blemishes on 2 of 2, particularly Timberlake’s lyrics, which I now find goofy and even somewhat charming. But there’s still too much of 2 of 2, however good a thing it is.
I can’t think of another pop endeavor so audacious in scope.
For all my griping, it would be insane to ignore the obvious: Justin Timberlake has set a remarkably high bar for his complete 20/20 Experience – and he nearly clears it. I can’t think of another pop endeavor so audacious in scope. Sure, there may be a shorter classic buried somewhere within the project’s 145+ minutes. Alas, this mythical album merely exists in my mind. 2 of 2, however, comes tantalizingly close to that ideal on its own. [B+]