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Justin Timberlake Attempts to Wow Us Again on ‘The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2’

Justin Timberlake / Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: September 30, 2013
Label: RCA

The sequel rarely beats the original. Cinematic exceptions include the return of the Corleone family, the Empire striking back, and the encore early-’80s outing of a certain blue-tights-wearing beefcake superhero; musical exceptions don’t really exist at all. Justin Timberlake’s follow-up to the spring 2013 commercial juggernaut The 20/20 Experience won’t change that. On The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2, you won’t find an aggressive, exotic foot stomper worthy of its predecessor’s “Let the Groove Get In”; nor will you find a shimmering weeper like “Mirrors,” or a mid-tempo burner that makes your shoulders twitch as vibrantly as “Pusher Love Girl.” The end result is disappointing, but only slightly, in the same way virtually all other second comings let you down.

I suppose calling this a sequel at all is a bit of a misnomer. RCA split 20/20 in half (and put a half-year between installments) to keep fans engaged over a longer duration — and to force us to buy two separate records, of course. (They’ll eventually sell both halves as one complete package, so you can shell out for that, too.) Think of it as a descendant of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: It succeeds as stand-alone art, but you can’t ignore its DNA as corporate, branded Event-Pop.

Where 2 of 2 manages to exceed its product status is in the sheer Wow Factor of the music. Producers Timbaland, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Daniel Jones, and Rob Knox once again pursue an emulsion of MOR pop, country, prog-soul, hip-hop, and rock that enigmatically gels. Full of rapidfire edits, buzzing synths, twinkling guitar licks, rumbling congas, vintage horns, swirling strings, and Timbaland’s eccentric beatboxing noises, these soundscapes are bigger, bolder, and busier than most of what’s on Top 40 radio today. Primarily focused on romantic themes, the songs are sturdily crafted, though we never really learn much about who newlywed Justin Timberlake really is: Everything’s trapped on the surface. As before, tracks experimentally clock in at longer than seven minutes, replete with non-sequitur codas that flip the track’s rhythmic priorities and/or try your patience.

Still, organ-laced “Drink You Away” is a surefire hit, a country twanger lifted to heaven by Timberlake’s quilted, hermetic harmonies. Sensitive closer “Pair of Wings” lands somewhere between ’70s Bread and ’90s Savage Garden. The vocally filtered “Only When I Walk Away” is in naked pursuit of Bruno Mars’ nu-reggae pop. But clunkers abound, too: “True Blood” tries to excavate early-’80s Michael Jackson synth-funk horror, but the lyrics are asinine, the production is waaaay over the top, and the chorus is a throwaway. It’s a howler for the ages.

Sometime around 2008, deep groove — funk that aims to free your mind by moving your ass — was displaced on mainstream radio by the abrasive synth leads of Euro-dance and EDM (pop trends that Timbaland/Timberlake helped to popularize with 2006’s “SexyBack”). This summer marked a new era: Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, and JT himself each scored major hits via analog-era funk and disco. The initial shock of 20/20 Experience lead single “Suit and Tie” was that although it heralded Timberlake’s commercial return to form, the music sounded as if time had stood still, as if the seven years of innovation that followed FutureSex/LoveSounds hadn’t happened at all. Looks like that was a strategy: With its sputtering buzz-saw synths and pneumatic drum programming, simmering 2 of 2 opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know” and dramatic toe-tapper “TKO” could be lost cuts from Timbaland’s 2007 smash Shock Value. Certainly, nothing here actually gives you what you don’t know.

JT himself seems more driven than ever to convince you that he’s the living embodiment of Michael Jackson. You hear it in “Take Back the Night,” an obvious “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” nod that could also double for DeBarge; note also the Jackson 5 “Dancin’ Machine” reference on aggressive thumper “Murder,” featuring Jay Z. As for soul nostalgia, it’s not so much personal taste as corporate risk-management, adhering to the if-it-ain’t-broke rule. By sticking primarily with Timbaland, he seems to be basing his career on the long-term-monogamous-marriage model that Quincy Jones and MJ developed in their “classic” period — the same sort of union Janet Jackson and Jam/Lewis stretched over three decades.

But what if Timberlake moved into the future — and assumed a little more risk — by collaborating with a vanguard nu-soul electronica act like Disclosure or AlunaGeorge? He certainly has the cachet to do so without losing face. As it stands, with its insistence on aggressive polyrhythm and bumping bass, 2 of 2 is most certainly a funky record, but it’s hardly a deeply soulful one. That’s not a distinction without a difference.

Finally, if we’re invited to make the comparison, what you don’t get here are the daffy extremes that gave Michael Jackson’s blockbuster soul its vastly soulful weirdness. Peruse the abstract, opaque lyrics to “Billie Jean” or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and take another listen to those ecstatic, half-mad vocal performances. With MJ, I think about how he claimed to have locked himself in his bedroom every Sunday afternoon to furiously practice his dancing and exorcise his demons via some sort of funky catharsis. When I think of Justin Timberlake, I mostly recall those images of him puttering around a golf course, brandishing his club.