Saturday, March 5, 2016
Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience (Part 2)
Such was the perfect storm of intensity waiting for Justin Timberlake when he made his comeback earlier this year with the first part of The 20/20 Experience. Timberlake’s answer to handling the “double album” pressure was, unsurprisingly, to play it cool and not tell anyone he was actually making a double album: The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 wasn’t even announced until well after the first part had scored a just-shy-of-a-million-copies first week of sales. Timberlake also subverted expectations with the music, inflating his song lengths to the five, six, or seven minute range (if not more), meaning that his two 2013 albums have ended up with a collective running time of 144 minutes, enough music for three or four records. Needless to say, the 2013 version of Justin Timberlake has been a guy with a lot of songs to share and plenty of surprises up his sleeve.
One of those surprises is that The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 actually sounds significantly more like Timberlake’s older solo work, specifically 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, than the introductory part of the project did. The first half of this record, from the freaky jungle funk of “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” to the foreboding grandiosity of “TKO,” seems to rest in the same dark grooves that Timberlake and superstar producer Timbaland cultivated on FutureSex or Justified. “Gimme What I Don’t Know” is reminiscent of “Sexy Ladies,” while “TKO” is the closest any of the 20/20 songs have come to recreating the vibe of the career highlight single, “Cry Me a River.” “True Blood,” this record’s most disastrous track, even feels like an attempt at a weirder, darker retread of “SexyBack,” with elements of Halloween standards like “Thriller” and “Monster Mash” thrown in for good measure. At 9:32 in length, the song is a mess, with some good qualities (the incredibly groovy guitar clip at the 4:30 mark) and some patently dreadful ones as well (pretty much every cheesy vampire reference that comes out of Justin’s mouth). It’s a mixed bag, and plenty of people will skip it every time, but “True Blood” makes perfect sense in context: it’s this record’s “Exhibit A” for double album self indulgence.
While some older fans will enjoy Timberlake’s return to his darker influences after the swooning neo-soul of The 20/20 Experience’s part one, it's hard to ignore the fact the first three or four tracks on Part 2 feel like a bizarre step back of sorts for a guy who was clearly ambitious to move forward musically just seven months ago. These new songs are fine, but for a solid half hour of its runtime, The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 feels like it’s traveling down a familiar road. Even the sex-obsessed “Cabaret” (complete with a rapidfire Drake feature) and the Michael Jackson-channeling “Take Back the Night” (a charismatic summer party anthem, loaded with colliding horn arrangements and sleek dance floor grooves) feel somehow less impressive than a lot of the songs Timberlake was slinging last time around, if only because they don’t add up to an “experience” greater than the sum of their parts. It’s all still very enjoyable, of course, but during the first five tracks, The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 just doesn’t really feel like a actual cohesive album.
But then suddenly, around Part 2’s halfway point, Timberlake throws the rulebook out the window and starts having a ball, and the resulting string of tracks is arguably the strongest in his catalog. The kickoff is “Murder,” a kinetic should-be chart-topper that turns the lovelorn sweep of the first part of The 20/20 Experience on its head by likening lust to a dangerous and deadly game. Jay Z brings the energy down a notch with an Awful (no, that capital “A” is not a typo) guest feature about Yoko Ono's sexual prowess. If you didn’t like his “Suit and Tie” verse, this one is considerably worse, but that’s a small complaint considering the infectious nature of the song and the bulletproof string of hits it sets in motion. A radio edit with Jay Z excised entirely would be much appreciated.
The follow-up, a country-tinged, organ-drenched stomper called “Drink You Away,” might be the most immediate track on either 20/20 album, with a slick, soulful vibe that transcends Justin’s not-so-stellar heartbreak-equals-drinking metaphors (“Feel it in my brain/Tall shot of pain” is another indication that lyrics are not Timberlake’s strong suit). The chorus itself is a wrecking ball, instantly memorable after a single listen, and the way that Timberlake delivers the song’s key refrain line (“Don’t they make a medicine for heartbreak?” he begs repeatedly) is just one terrific vocal moment in a record full of them. As for the organ, which rollicks along like one of the many carnivalesque color splashes of Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent, The E-Street Shuffle, it ties the song together and makes it sound instantly timeless.
One of the biggest complaints from original 20/20 Experience dissenters was that the album was long on sprawling track lengths and layered sonic soundscapes, but relatively short on hooks. Here, the tracks have hardly gotten shorter, but the hooks certainly feel more striking. Timberlake has called Part 2 “the hotter, older evil twin sister” of Part 1, and that certainly feels true during the record’s dark second half. Take the rousing penultimate cut, “Only When I Walk Away,” whose jacknife guitar riff and rapidfire chorus are virtually impossible to dislodge from your brain once they’ve taken up residence there. Or “Amnesia,” which parlays the first entry’s multi-part sensibility into one of the most seamless and beautiful tracks Timberlake has ever written. It’s a shattering break up song, played out through the eyes of a guy who sees the girl he used to love on the dance floor at some seedy, hazy nightclub. The first half is dark dance pop, but the latter, a luminescent dream sequence of unrequited longing, is where Timberlake really shines. “Go and on tear me apart, and do it again tomorrow,” he sings right after the song breaks in two. These may be the musings of a global superstar, a guy who “has everything,” but “Amnesia” is a refreshing reminder that everyone still bleeds the same way.
The 20/20 Experience comes to a fitting and logical conclusion on “Not a Bad Thing,” a simple radio friendly pop jam that calls back to Timberlake’s ‘N Sync days. And while it doesn’t carry the album out with the same lingering impact that Part 1’s “Blue Ocean Floor” left, it’s hard to argue with a song that, after nearly two-and-a-half hours of experimental, meandering music, still brings it all back home with a hands-in-the-air sing along. An acoustic bonus track called “Pair of Wings” offers a pleasant epilogue, but “Not a Bad Thing” is the de facto closer, and it feels comfortably like the completion of a journey.
Who knows how long it will be before Timberlake drops another album. He could turn around and release a concise pop record next year, or he could wait another half a decade before returning with something long, indulgent, transformative, and divisive. Regardless of what’s next though, The 20/20 Experience is a remarkable accomplishment in the here and now, not because all of the songs are great, but because they are a collective portrait of an artist who isn’t afraid to try anything and everything. From Prince to Michael Jackson, from arena rock to country-tinged blues, and from his own boy band roots to the mature Timbaland beats that helped make him a solo star, Timberlake throws every influence he’s ever touched at the canvas here, and he somehow gets away with it. Double albums are never perfect, and they rarely age well, but at its best and worst, The 20/20 Experience still stands as a comeback-plus-victory-lap milestone for one of pop music’s greatest modern innovators; it’s nice to have him back in the game.