Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience - 2 Of 2

When Justin Timberlake released “Take Back The Night,” the first single from the second volume of his The 20/20 Experience album, there was some confusion on the internet: How in the hell did Timberlake think it was OK to give his slick disco-revival single the same name as an anti-rape institution that’s been around for decades? Did he just not know about the other Take Back The Night? Did he think nobody would mind? Did nobody tell him that this was a bad idea? Was he intentionally tweaking multiple generations of feminists with this shit? Did he even think about it? But a few early listens to The 20/20 Experience – 2 Of 2 handily answers that last question: No. No, he didn’t think about it. He probably didn’t think much about a single word that he sang on the album. Timberlake has never exactly been Jarvis Cocker or Biggie Smalls, and his lyrics have never held up to close analysis. But even in the context of his larger career, this new album is a full-on howler zone, full of extended song-length metaphors that never had a chance to work. “TKO“: You’re knocking him out with your love. “Murder”: Your body is like murder. “True Blood”: Your love has him feeling like a vampire, in the sense that he wants to drink your blood. Seriously: “True Blood” is an extended metaphor about the HBO show True Blood. Imagine if HAIM’s “The Wire” was about how you’re like Stringer Bell, selling them WMD vials of your love. That’s the level of writing we’re dealing with here.

The first 20/20 Experience is far from a perfect album, but it had a reason to exist. After years away from music, Timberlake was suavely gliding back in, giving the world a look at the new, mature version of him, the one that was a decade-plus removed from the boy band years, the one who’d been in at least one good movie, the one who’d gotten married and made tons of money and was coming back because he felt like it. It’s an album of lush, expansive, indulgent love songs. Timberlake went full-on retro-soul showman on that album, but he did it with Timbaland. That meant he never descended into Daptone revivalism, and even the slickest and glibbest pastiche moments had busy and unpredictable rhythmic cross-currents going on underneath. And if something like “Mirrors” had a troublingly self-serving subtext — he loves you because you’re like him, and loving you is like looking in the mirror — it still had a softly keening melody and a powerfully sincere and disarming delivery, and its central hooks was just going to pitch its tent in your brain and live there for a couple of months. This second volume isn’t that.

Around the time the first album came out, ?uestlove leaked the news that there was another album in the works, and that there was a conceptual arc at work. (10 songs on the first album, another 10 on the second, 20 songs, 20/20 vision, get it?) But this album doesn’t sound like the second half of a sprawling epic. It sounds like Timberlake had a bunch of songs left over, just in case the first album hit big. Well, the first album hit big. It’s the biggest-selling LP of the year to date. I’ve heard “Mirrors” every time I’ve walked into a CVS in the past four months, and I’ve always been happy to hear it. At the VMAs, Timberlake was a conquering hero. He toured stadiums all summer with Jay-Z, and made a movie where he’s the hero and Ben Affleck is the villain, and he gave the year’s best SNL hosting job, and we’ve all pretty much come to accept that he’s a globally dominant star in ways that he wasn’t last year. So these 10 extra songs — songs that might have been B-sides or greatest-hits-album bonus tracks or undiscovered works that get thrown onto a box set in 10 years if things had gone the other way — they now get to be their own album. That’s my theory, anyway. The second album didn’t need to exist; it’s the rushed and thrown-together sequel that only exists because its predecessor was a runaway world-conquering success. It’s the Jaws 2 of albums: Quint is dead, Richard Dreyfuss didn’t feel like coming back, everyone already knows what the shark looks like, but godammit, we can’t not make another one because that would be leaving money on the table. And in this particular lameass extended metaphor, “Drink You Away” is the scene where the shark jumps out of the water and grabs the helicopter and drags it underwater.

“Drink You Away” is an awesome song. It has its own goofy metaphor — your love is like a hangover that he can’t drink away no matter how much alcohol he consumes — but it’s done in an easy, graceful, weirdly fascinating way. On the track, Timbaland returns to the dusty, loping, organic funked-out Southern-rock sound he hasn’t touched since he and Bubba Sparxxx made the wonderful, deeply underrated 2003 album Deliverance. Tim’s drums still skitter, and the beatboxes still mutter and burble and coo. But this time, those things are there to support sighing organs and lazy acoustic guitars and lonely wailing solos, all of which sound like Tim’s trying to assemble his own Muscle Shoals house band out of spare parts. And Timberlake, who always claims Memphis without ever sounding Memphis, takes to this stuff like a bloated sequelized shark to water, sighing and moaning and pleading like he’s trying to make a name for himself on the chitlin circuit in 1974. It’s two of the foremost minds of futuristic pop music making a direct Stax Records homage, and it’s fascinating and deeply effective.

The rest of the time, though, they’re firmly on autopilot, or maybe struggling to get onto autopilot. The first album closed with the ballad “Blue Ocean Floor,” which was Timberlake’s take on Frank Ocean, and this one ends with the acoustic bonus track “Pair Of Wings,” which is almost certainly the worst ballad of Timberlake’s entire solo career and which functions as his take on, like, Jason Mraz. Other ballads, like “Amnesia,” are nearly as anemic, and nothing comes remotely close to “Mirrors” status. The party tracks, like “TKO” and “True Blood” and “Murder,” are rote dives into Tim’s mid-’00s sound, and they all sound tired. “Cabaret” wastes a fierce Drake guest verse on a midtempo stumble with the following lyric: “I got you saying ’Jesus’ so much it’s like we’re laying in the manger.” (I’m no biblical scholar, but I don’t think baby Jesus was actually saying ’Jesus’ while he was laying in the manger. Could be wrong.) “Take Back The Night” would work as a smooth reprise of starry-eyed big-money late-’70s disco if Daft Punk hadn’t just devoted a much better album to reviving that exact same sound. The whole thing just flounders, flopping around with this eager-to-please puppy-dog neediness that scans as desperation rather than playfulness.

On his three previous solo albums, Timberlake has proven himself a sharp songwriter, a canny curator, and a great predictor of musical trends. On Justified, he distanced himself from his immediate teenpop past by linking up with the adventurous producers who were then dragging rap radio into fresh and mysterious places. On FutureSex/LoveSounds, he was making a gleaming spaceship of forward-thinking dance music, taking advantage of his vast cultural capital by making the most experimental A-list pop album in recent memory. On the first The 20/20 Experience, he was reasserting his dominance, high-stepping into the role of old-school entertainer and passing his wife a 70-minute mash note in the process. This new album is the first one where he’s content to just sit around and do things he’s done before, with way less energy and inspiration and craft. And if he makes another six years of shitty movies after this album cycle ends, I guess I’m OK with that.

The 20/20 Experience – 2 Of 2 is out 9/30 on RCA. Stream it here.

Comments (45)
  1. I haven’t listened to 2 of 2, as I felt like everything dad just told us sucks about this second part is how I felt about the first, and that was enough for me. It’s nice to finally read the truth about modern day J.T. for once.

    • I firmly agree with this. I am a HUGE fan of JT’s first two albums, and the word “disappointed” doesn’t even begin to capture how I felt about the first 20/20. This one feels like more of the same. Where his first two albums felt exciting and different, these have both felt supremely lazy. Everybody seemed afraid to say it with the first record, but I guess maybe folks are coming around to say it for the second.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Part 1 was a total step backwards and not terrible different from Justified (but without as many good songs.) Futuresex/Lovesounds was the shit and a total leap into new territory. I’m not familiar with part 2 as much but it just seems content being okay.

      When you see other talented pop icons like Daft Punk or Kanye find such success and respect after pursuing new sounds with new producers, why do you think its a good idea to fall back on industry scrubs like Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon to continue to produce your albums. I’m not saying 20/20 is god awful or anything, Its just really disappointing to see a diversely talented artist and entertainer come off his music hiatus for something so stylistically bland and outdated.

  2. Kid works hard. I give him much respect for that. Solid, well built top 40 with more Prince than he should be allowed to rip off, but nonetheless never a dull listen.

  3. Damn, is it that bad?!

    • I don’t think its THAT bad.

      The biggest issue with this album is we didn’t know about it until after the first came out. If you hear that an artist is coming out with another album not even half a year after the first, it has the same name but with 2 of 2 stapled to the end of it and its produced by basically the same people, you’re going to assume: throwaway tracks. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Sure, this time around its not so much of a throwback sound, there’s nothing on here that grips you immediately like Pusher Love Girl but there are some quality songs.

      Anyways, where I’m going with this is, if you took this album and released it first then released part 1 second, I feel like there might be a similar reaction. We’re just oversaturated with JT right now. He now has appeared on FOUR major hit songs since the Spring (Suit & Tie, Mirrors, Take Back the Night, Holy Grail), his album was massively popular, he had an entire week dedicated to him on Jimmy Fallon. He’s huge right now. And when you get 21 tracks that don’t have major differences in style or lyrical content, its gonna wear on you a little bit.

      There are some good songs on this thing. The opener is a damn good song. I disagree on True Blood, I love the beat on it, Drink You Away is a fun song. It does have its seemingly boring tracks like TKO and Cabaret, but I’m pretty sure if you replaced songs like Tunnel Vision on the first one with a song like TKO, you wouldn’t have the same complaints about TKO.

      This whole 20/20 Experience probably would’ve been better if he had made one album with about 13 or 14 tracks and then had some bonus tracks.

  4. It’s not like this is any worse than the majority of albums from top 40 radio acts, the problem is that it isn’t any better. This is seriously just a really boring, bland album.

  5. The truth about JT from the man himself: “It’s not that I’m great at any one thing, I’m just good at several.” Justin Timberlake.

    There are better pop stars, better actors, better comedians, he manages to deftly move in between them and keep people on their toes. But he’s not a great in any of them, and probably overrated in all of them. Plus he’s probably got an amazing team around him, and he’s probably a pretty nice dude.

    • Out of every one of JT’s talents, the position that would fit him best would be a late night hosting gig. There were reports that NBC was actually considering him to take over for Fallon, but that obviously did not happen.

      • Yeah he’d probably be pretty good. I think a true contemporary of JT is Jimmy Fallon himself. Comedian, acting, singing. personable, etc Cause JT is nowhere near the same galaxy as pop stars like Prince or MJ.

        • Oh god no, please don’t make that comparison.

          It’s not that Jimmy Fallon is particularly terrible at any one thing. He’s just marginally bad at several.

    • I’m curious who the better pop stars are? The only person who comes close to him currently is Beyonce. Is he or will he ever be Michael? No, but no one will ever be.

  6. Uhhhhh Jaws 2 was a very solid sequel. Dreyfuss or no dreyfuss.

  7. Basically meeting contract requirements. Justin didn’t really want to do these albums.

    • Yeah I actually just had lunch with Justin and I can 100% confirm this is correct, as he told me the very same information (when I had lunch with him, just now).

    • I think its more likely that Justin wanted to do ONE album but when you’re a massive pop star and you go seven years without releasing an album, the label is gonna do what they can to get another album out.

      I don’t think of the 21 songs total, you can definitively say the best 10 are on part 1 but it definitely seems a little more loaded than the second. Definitely some bonus track-esque songs on Part 2.

      • I think you nailed it. Haven’t listened to the whole album yet, but even if I dislike it as much as Tom does (doubt it), it won’t bother me and won’t tarnish his rep in my book. This album is a b-sides record. They just had the audacity to pretend it was more than that.

        I’m fully prepared to get flack for comparing JT to Radiohead (my favorite band of all time), but this reminds me of Amnesiac. As much as I love Radiohead (and Amnesiac), there is no hiding that was a b-sides album. They had a ton of good ideas, not all of them fit the feel of Kid A, so they released the rest 6 months later. They got shit for it back then too, but 10 years later everyone loves Amnesiac and doesn’t think twice about it.

        Don’t go lynching me yet, because I’m not insisting 20/20 part 2 will have the same life. I’m just making the comparison to say it’s not a big deal, or even surprising, that this second part isn’t so great. Sure, it might have been better to bust out one solid album with all the best tracks, but then he couldn’t fulfill his contractual obligations which we already know was a big motivation for this offering. Having said all that, JT has still released one of the best albums of the year in Part 1.

  8. Amnesiac it aint

  9. remember when he took brittney spears virginity ? he should write a song about that

  10. No one talks about the bonus tracks on Part 1 but I thought “Dress On” was a pretty good song that could’ve been a radio hit.

    I also hate how bonus tracks are treated. When reviewed are they part of the album or not? In the case of Nothing Was the Same you could easily say that the bonus tracks “Come Thru”, “All Me” and “The Motion” are actually part of the narrative of the album and make the album that much better.

  11. Every time I read anything positive about the music of Justin Timberlake, I shake my hand in awe that a ‘N Sync boy was able to do what he did.

  12. I consider myself to be a pretty big JT fan. I think Part 1 is honestly one of the best albums of the year — I love every track. But even I can get turned off by oversaturation. It’s almost like people who post too many Instagrams in a row. It’s like dude, that sunset is pretty cool, but each picture you post of the same thing brings diminishing returns.

    I love you JT, but we really didn’t need this Part 2.

  13. “Mirrors” sucks BTW. I’ve never been happy to hear that shitty song.

    • real talk

      part 1 was a situation where I was underwhelmed by both of the singles (more “Mirrors” than “Suit & Tie”) but thought the rest of the album was cool

  14. I kinda laugh at the “How could he name his song Take Back The Night???” bit at the beginning, because I’m pretty sure there were only like three people on here (writers included) that actually knew that was an anti-rape institution before. Are we gonna keep railing JT for being ignorant to something that we were all ignorant too as well? Give the guy a break. Maybe he did know and didn’t care. His PR team shoulda known better, sure. But we didn’t know better either so who gives a shit. I actually had forgotten about it until it was brought up in the article.

    • For real? I don’t know where you live, but the day “Take Back the Night” dropped, my tweet and facebook feeds were filled with jokes by both fans and “haters” about how ignorant it was to name a sexualized track after the very well known anti-rape organization.

      • Yeah I saw all of those too…but it didn’t occur to me until I saw those. That’s what I’m saying. I agree it was a misstep, there’s no question there. What I’m saying is I didn’t know what the organization was, and many people I’ve talked to didn’t either (or in the least didn’t think about it) until it became a big fuss. It was like “Oh yeah..that’s an anti-rape thing? Oops…someone is getting fired…”

        I’m willing to accept I was simply ignorant to the organization. But I’m postive I wasn’t the only one. The proof is all over these walls when it was first posted too. Oh well. I just think it’s funny.

  15. Finally listened to the whole thing. I guess it was a good thing I read Tom’s thoughts first, because it definitely exceeded my expectations. This thing is a straight up banger. I’m actually amused at the hate, especially since it’s much better than plenty of other “pop” records that have been getting praise as of late.

    Sure the lyrics are laughable at times. But I’ll let you guys in on a little secret…
    I’ve never once listened to JT for his life-altering poetics. Sometimes you just wanna have fun, and JT knows how to have fun, by damn.

  16. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  17. i think “Amnesia” is a TOTAL JAM YALL

  18. On “Take Back the Night,” I mean, it’s a phrase. Not trying to be dismissive or make the organization sound like it’s obscure, but the negative reaction to this is acting like he titled a song after something with a unique name that can’t be used in any other way. a little overblown.

    plus it’s way better than either of the hits off part 1 even though the drums could be a little stronger.

    otherwise I like a few songs on this but yeah it’s whatever. the couple rock-ier songs make me think of that awful Chris Cornell/Timbaland project a few years back, not sure they’re all that similar but he’s not a good producer when it comes to that style in general

  19. this album is DOING IT for me right now, and im not even sorry about it. Give Me What I Dont Know I want, True Blood, Murder, Drink You Away, Amnesia, Only When I Walk Away are JAMS. Like, how could you not freak over the production on the first 2 songs of the album? I dont listen to Justin Timberlake to hear some great lyricism, I listen to hear crazy beats and tight hooks. Thats what Im getting here, and for what thats worth, im liking 2 of 2 a lot more than part 1

  20. “This new album is the first one where he’s content to just sit around and do things he’s done before, with way less energy and inspiration and craft.”

    I appreciate that the new album was given a bad review, but what the deal with praising his past work? I wouldn’t doubt that JT’s approach to this album was any different from the others, this one probably just had less money involved with it’s production to afford songwriters who can craft music to appeal to the masses. Why has it become such a big thing lately for internet music magazines like Stereogum and Pitchfork to embrace commercial artists like JT, Drake and Kanye? I always hear the defense that being able to get into pop music means that one has a more open mind or a mature, distinguished taste, but that’s such bullshit. It’s just empty music, and I’m sick being told I should think any more of it than that.

    I hope I don’t sound too much like some douchey hipster for feeling this way, it’s just starting to get really frustrating to see these ‘artists’

    • Dammit Windows 8! My laptop posted that before I was finished writing. Anyway, to finish that last sentence, it’s just starting to get really frustrating to see these ‘artists’ getting praised on all the end of the year lists when they don’t have anywhere close to the songwriting talent that a lot of other musicians that I love do.

      Just needed to post that to relieve my angst. I feel better now =)

    • So Kanye’s most recent album (Yeezus and MBDTF) is empty music? Haha, yeah right?

  21. I’m not a Drake fan but all of the guys you named have unique sonic aesthetics, it’s fine to dislike ‘em for whatever reason but your characterization is pretty off-base

    especially with Kanye’s latest which regardless of quality isn’t pop at all

  22. ^meant as reply to Sean Kenny obv

  23. Justin Timberlake is Bud Light

  24. I can’t stand bad lyrics and JT’s songs are filled with them. It’s okay if you’re 14 years old and you haven’t developed a sense of taste yet for music, but as you get older, actual thoughtfulness in lyrics matter. Hopefully, anyway.

    JT would sound better with more real instruments, no auto-tune, and songwriters who have something to actually say that’s worth listening to.

    I wish I could like his music more, but to me it mostly sounds like filler, all homogenized to sound kind of the same and too many tracks that feel like Michael Jackson rejected them years ago.

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