Three More Thoughts on Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2”

20/20

Because it’s been so long since the last one (right), Justin Timberlake just released a new album. The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 is a sequel to the monster hit The 20/20 Experience, which debuted all the way in the long-forgotten time period collectively known as six months ago. I wrote a review of this very long, often baffling, sometimes dazzling collection of tunes for The Eagle’s Album Reviews Brew.

“With the second half of his year-long pop music takeover, Timberlake has delivered an album of 12 tracks that span a wide spectrum of styles and emotions, from animalistic desires to lovestruck devotion. This sequel to the year’s best-selling album strips away much of the romance and throwback smoothness of instant classics like “Mirrors” and “Pusher Love Girl” in favor of a more sinister aesthetic.”

Read the rest of my review here, and click through for Three More Thoughts:

1. Bigger isn’t always better. In my review of the first part of this bifurcated JT opus, I drew a distinction between the ultra-long tracks that justified their extended length with compelling transitional morphs and the ultra-long tracks that simply kept going because JT and Timbaland apparently forgot to hit the pause button. On this album, the balance seems to tip in favor of the latter, unfortunately. I lambasted “True Blood” in my review, but maybe I would have liked it more had it not groaned on for more than nine minutes. “Take Back the Night” could have benefited from a shorter and sweeter approach as well – the tacked-on dance party isn’t particularly revelatory and adds little to a rather good song. The album’s most forgettable track, ironically titled “Amnesia,” is the worst offender in this regard: it starts off lackadaisical and builds to nothing interesting.

In the album’s defense, though, a few of the tracks justify their extended running times. I’m thinking of “Only When I Walk Away” and “You Got It On.” There’s something to be said for the efficiency of the Drake collaboration “Cabaret,” though.

2. Nitpicks on the title. Logistically, many things about this album are jarring. First, that title. It’s a mouthful, it looks ugly on the page, and it doesn’t convey much of anything except that this album is the definitive conclusion to this experience. Furthermore, Timberlake implied that the two albums would add up to 20 songs, justifying the title and providing a pleasing symmetry, but instead he tacked on an extra track to throw the balance off. To make matters even murkier, that extra track (“Not a Bad Thing”) actually contains a hidden track in the second half of its eleven-minute running time. (Thank goodness. “Not a Bad Thing” is good, but at eleven minutes it would be awful.)

Beyond those inconsistencies, the timing of this album seems inept. According to Billboard, it’s slated to sell 370,000 copies in its first week, a respectable sum that nonetheless represents a 60% drop from the first-week sales of the first part. JT fatigue is setting in, and while Timberlake certainly shouldn’t have any regrets about his pop-culture domination extravaganza this year, he has to be wondering whether delaying the album to next year, or even later in this one, might have boosted enthusiasm. “Take Back the Night” wasn’t the huge hit it easily could have been, and “TKO” hasn’t taken off on the charts either. The six-year break between FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience is looking smarter by the day. (Also, the bad buzz for his starring role in the new movie Runner, Runner can’t be helping matters.)

3. What’s next? Justin Timberlake is one of my favorite pop artists. I should probably find some room in this post for praise, right? I think so. This album has some of my favorite songs of his entire year. “You Got It On” feels like a throwback to the more romantic days of 20/20 1 of 2, but it’s also one of his smoothest, sweetest vocal deliveries to date. As many reviews have mentioned, “Not a Bad Thing” harkens back to classic NSYNC, providing closure to the band that Timberlake recently reunited with, however halfheartedly. While Jay-Z’s verse on the “Murder” leaves quite a bit to be desired, Drake’s contribution to the album feels consistent with JT’s ethos.

More than any individual songs, though, I admire Timberlake’s ambition with this new collection of music. Instead of resting on his laurels and delivering stale retreads of his biggest hits, or falling in step with the times and loading up on EDM and dubstep, Timberlake delivered an electic mix of music that sounds like nothing else on the radio today. He experimented with running times, song structure and instrumentation. He didn’t come back with nothing to say like Jay-Z – arguably, he came back with too much to say and not enough organization.

And therein lies my hope for the future of Justin Timberlake in the pop culture conversation. Sure, he’ll continue to do History of Rap with Jimmy Fallon and Bring It On Down to …Ville on Saturday Night Live. But musically, he’s due for a new collaborator. No disrespect to Timbaland, but his most innovative days seem to be behind him, and it’s time that Timberlake tried out a new muse or two, just to see how his chemistry mixes with others. It’s not as if He’s completely tethered to Timbaland – some of the best songs on Justified were collaborations with the Neptunes, the hot producers of the moment. How would Justin Timberlake would mix with the hottest producers making hits today? How would he work with producers we haven’t even heard of? How would he do with some really killer songwriting? We won’t know until Timberlake says goodbye, if only temporarily, to Timbaland and his comfort zone. He’s earned the public’s trust. Some say he’s the Frank Sinatra of our times, other say he’s the Michael Jackson. Either way, it’s time to see what else this superstar can do.

Further Reading:

*Chris Richards of the Washington Post did not like 2 of 2 at all.

*Annie Zaleski of The AV Club liked the album much better, and appreciated its risk-taking.

*A profile of JT in the New York Times Magazine, in which Timberlake re-contextualizes the album title as “music you can see.”

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