There are some statements that just sound naturally artistically loaded regardless of context. Let’s take Lady Gaga’s “One second I’m a Kunst*/Then suddenly the Kunst is me” line in “Applause”. You may not know what it means, and it may not mean anything but a quotable for the sake of making a quotable. But it at least feels like it means something.
Here’s another one: “I’m ignoring all boundaries for this album.” Kanye West, Jay Z, and Justin Timberlake have all said something along those lines before their press-stopping releases this year. For Kanye West, it’s his hubris-wrapped brass knuckle against consumerism and radio accessibility. Jay Z uses it as a card to be some sort hip-hop/cultural curator, trading in hustler cred to articulate a higher cultural awareness.
There’s a sense there’s a lot at stake with the prior two usages. That’s far from the case for Timberlake, who’s far too amiable of a pop figure to attract the sort of criticism West and Jay Z have. “No boundaries” is a mission statement for those two; for Timberlake, it symbolizes a sense of freedom.
These 20/20 Experience albums are his playground. The first installment had its flaws—like cliché traps and average execution on some ideas—but there’s a sense of joy in Timberlake’s performance and the adventurism in Timbaland’s and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon’s production gives the album a solid case for its importance if the seven-year absence didn’t do so.
That sort of playground amusement turns sour on The 20/20 Experience—2 of 2. Imagine looking after a child in a playground and noticing he/she only frequents one section, like the handlebars or something. It for could be any reason whether it’s because the kid is shy, but even though you know there’s genuine goodness in watching a kid play, at the end of the day there’s a million things you’d rather be doing—parent or not. That’s The 20/20 Experience—2 of 2: well-intentioned but tragically forgettable, perhaps the most forgettable piece of work in Timberlake’s career.
Timberlake once again uses the two-part song structure, and the problem is just that: It’s become too structured. While this format was expansive and free-flowing enough to justify its use on the singer’s prior two efforts, on The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 it feels forced and unessential. It’s too containing and all the ideas—or lack thereof—fall in line with ham-fisted execution. Some are dead on arrival.
The 74-minute album shows slight signs of its sloppiness in the first few tracks, but they aren’t strong enough to foreshadow its downfall. “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”—Timberlake’s album-opening ode to instant gratification—is carried by this attentive beatbox-based instrumental, but it’s truly buoyed by the twinkling keys on the bridge and that alluring vocal sample on the hook before being dragged down by those completely extraneous cartoonish animal sounds. “True Blood” feels like some off-kilter combination of Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” video and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that’s three or four minutes too long, but the track does somehow manage to be enjoyable. “Cabaret” has the extraordinarily childish “Girl if sex is a contest then you’re coming first” JT line, but Drake’s verse more than makes up for it. Props to him for revealing the true reason why men pull two-a-days at the gym.
The song ends in a bustling coda that’s topped with a vocal sample announcing that this album comes in “thrilling new live sound.” Ironically the album takes a steep fall afterward, almost immediately when Timbaland starts off “TKO” in a not-in-a-good-way weird “Kill me with the coo-coochie-coochie-coo.” The boxing/love metaphors begin to roll and fall flat, just like the overly saccharine Michael Jackson sendoff “Take Back the Night” did as the album’s first single.
There is a behind-the-scenes video posted on Justin Timberlake’s website before the album release that showed the singer and Timbaland on the same wavelength as they discuss the 20/20 Experience albums. But here it just doesn’t feel like they’re feeding off each other that much.
Timbaland’s work here is good, but “good” doesn’t translate into memorable. This applies whether it’s in the showy horns on the Jay Z-assisted “Murder” or the violins on the decent “Amnesia”. Timbaland lays the backdrops only to step back and allow Timberlake to do his thing, and that’s not really a great formula when your lead performer is violently stumbling over clichés like in the shallow country of “Drink You Away” and the love-me-love-me-not motif of “Only When I Walk Away”.
Those two songs do have a ‘90s throwback quality to them, which makes it even more upsetting since he occupied that space so well on “Mirrors”. That song had a boy band aesthetic, but Timberlake managed to flip it into a legit anthemic love song. “Drink You Away” and “Only When I Walk Away”, like much of the album, are simple retreads.
The 20/20 Experience—2 of 2 just feels like a misstep in a year that was supposed to be his stage, but ended up getting besieged by big releases by the aforementioned stars and Drake’s Nothing Was the Same. The latter especially took some of Timberlake’s mojo, but 20/20 Experience—2 of 2 kills some of it too, leaving Timberlake with a release that has never felt this non-canonical.
2.5 out of 5
You can buy the album now on Amazon.
*“Kunst” is Dutch and German for art in case you were wondering