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.