With this week’s release of “The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2,” a companion album to March’s blockbuster “The 20/20 Experience,” Justin Timberlake has now produced 144 minutes of new music within the calendar year. This sort of productivity is not unprecedented: The Clash’s 1980 triple-LP “Sandinista!” clocked in at a nearly identical length, and the two volumes of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ 1991 “Use Your Illusion” collection added up to an overwhelming 152 minutes. Yet when Timberlake first announced this second installment earlier in the year – featuring recordings taken from the same 2012 sessions with producer Timbaland that produced his earlier record – the sheer Wagnerian size of his commercial output couldn’t help but ring some alarm bells.
The first “20/20” was hardly free of filler, and if the history of split-releases has taught consumers anything – Metallica’s “Load”/“Reload” and Radiohead’s “Kid A”/“Amnesiac” being the most instructive examples – it’s that such sequels often serve as mere glorified outtakes collections.
The good news is that the songs on “2 of 2” are too thematically consistent to suggest we’re being served simple leftovers. Whereas the first “20/20” reveled in sonic opulence and VIP-lounge class signifiers, “2 of 2” is a funkier, dirtier affair, full of minor keys and suffused with a leering after-party vibe. Yet it’s simply a far weaker effort, full of half-finished ideas and soulless swagger, and even the star’s most ardent admirers will likely find their patience tested.
Superficially speaking, “2 of 2” hews far more closely to the sound Timbaland and Timberlake pioneered on “FutureSex/LoveSounds” than this spring’s predecessor did. Percussion is largely off-kilter, with congas and 808 clicks skittering around the edges of the beats. Synth riffs stab out from odd corners, with sped-up vocal samples and unexpected instrumentation filling each track with plenty of sonic Easter eggs and splashy novelties. Timbaland barks commands from deep down in the mix throughout. And there are even two direct quotations – one lyrical, one musical – from the pair’s monolithic 2006 single “SexyBack.”
Yet without any sense of connective tissue or spark beneath all these bells and whistles, the album proves a fundamentally empty, lifeless exercise. Perhaps no song exemplifies the record’s failings more clearly than the indifferently received lead-off single “Take Back the Night.” It’s far from the worst track on the record, and on first listen it seems to contain all the essential elements of a solid retro disco workout – vintage horns, “Off the Wall”-style rhythms, falsetto vocals, etc. What it lacks, however, is any sort of forward momentum to fuse all of these elements with the clockwork syncopation that good disco requires. Instead, it just plods along dutifully to the fade-out, its various components churning forward with all the excitement and spontaneity of a factory assembly line.
There’s also the not inconsiderable issue of bloat. Only one song on this record clocks in at less than five minutes, with “True Blood” stretching to nine and a half, and three other tracks pushing well past seven. “FutureSex” featured some abnormally long track lengths as well, though with that record, the flowing codas and intros were simply evidence of an excess of quality ideas and ambition. (Witness the masterful way that “Let Me Talk to You” sets up “My Love,” or the sleight-of-hand by which “I Think She Knows” turns “LoveStoned’s” pre-chorus hook on its head.) Here it’s pure overkill – songs reach a proper conclusion, then downshift to a lower gear for strangulated breakdowns that meander around aimlessly until they run out of steam. This was an issue on the first “20/20” too, but at least that record occasionally justified its indulgences with slow-growers like “Tunnel Vision” and “Mirrors,” none of which are in evidence here.
There are still some bright spots to be found. The killer chorus on “Murder” is explosive enough to overshadow Jay Z’s incoherent Yoko Ono musings in his lackluster guest verse (his second flopped cameo appearance this month). Opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” thumps along quite effectively, and contains the record’s most winningly silly sexual imagery. (Lyrically speaking, nothing here approaches the groan-worthiness of Timberlake’s vaginal metaphors on “20/20’s” “Strawberry Bubblegum,” though Lonely Island-level self-parody is rarely far away.) Likeable album closer “Not a Bad Thing” is the closest that Timberlake the solo artist has come to recapturing the puppy-love sugar-rush of his ‘N Sync material, even if the deployment of an f-bomb in the chorus seems somewhat cynically engineered to mark the song as “adult.”
Yet despite its sporadic strengths, the record hits some truly dire lows. The blues-infused “Drink You Away” aims to be a Lynyrd Skynyrd-style rave-up, but comes across like a church choir take on Kid Rock. “True Blood” pushes a questionable premise – sexy vampire imagery and “Thriller”-aping werewolf noises – for at least six minutes longer than the conceit can possibly sustain. And “TKO” is simply one of the lamest songs that Timberlake has ever committed to record, a headache-inducing compilation of all of Timbaland’s most overused tics and tricks, married to lyrics that suggest Timberlake has never seen a boxing match in his life. (“I’m down for the count/Girl you knock me out/With a TKO,” he sings.)
2013 has unquestionably been Timberlake’s year. Barring a surprise new Adele album, he will almost surely reign as 2013’s top-seller, and he’s buttressed his comeback with two stadium tours, performances on just about every tastemaking TV show that would have him, extensive brand partnerships, and a starring film role for good measure. But regaining the pop throne through overwhelming omnipresence brings the very real risk of overexposure, and Timberlake will have to exercise far better quality control if he hopes to retain it going forward.
Album Review: Justin Timberlake, 'The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2'
(RCA Records) Producers: Timbaland, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Justin Timberlake, Daniel Jones. Performers: Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Drake, Jay Z. Release date: September 27, 2013.