You probably already figured, but it’s a pretty great time to be Justin Timberlake: His most recent album, March’s The 20/20 Experience, has sold more copies than any other album released this year so far; he’s about to embark on a world tour; and in between hangouts with President Obama and Jay-Z, he’s even found the time to squeeze in a 110-second reunion with his former group, ‘N Sync, during a performance celebrating a lifetime achievement award from MTV. Round 2 was imminent. Case closed, cut to commercial.
“Justin and his team hit the studio for 20 days. More than 20 songs resulted.” The terse captions from his promo video scan like taglines from the singer’s past movies, and yet they keenly explain what’s supposed to make The 20/20 Experience so amazing: Timberlake’s sharp, effortless musical intuition and his eagerness to leap back into the ring. And while that gusto came through on some of the first installment’s stronger cuts, such as “Mirrors” and “That Girl,” its starry-eyed soul still felt undeveloped and in grave need of an editor.
Standing at 11 tracks and 70-plus minutes, 2 of 2 makes for an equally imposing listen. The musical topography hasn’t changed all that much — the lengthy run times are still here, as well as the constant striving for timelessness — and yet, there’s a more pervasive rowdiness at play in the second half: a nocturnal aesthetic that, as Timberlake recently explained to Jimmy Kimmel, represents the “slutty” counterpart to its more “virginal” predecessor.
True to his word, the album opens with “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want),” a “tribal” banger that’s all about showing teeth, spreading wings, going to the jungle. You know, sex. “Deep in the jungle where the creatures meet/ The animals come out when they hear the sound of the feet,” producer Timbaland enthusiastically squawks at one point; you can practically feel him poking you in the ribs and winking. The next song, the nine-minute, Thriller-inspired “True Blood,” ups the campy ante further, combining sinister laughs and wolf sounds with a tacky, Bollywood-tinged chorus. By the second or third bridge — accompanied throughout by a complete loss of momentum — you’ll be wishing that Sookie Stackhouse would show up and stake the whole thing.
Yes, folks, the sex-as-noun thematics are back in full force, and the howlers follow tout suite. “Girl, your body is gonna end up/ Under the ground,” he warns on the brassy, brazen “Murder,” tacking on the vaguely-creepy “I would be down to go to that level.” Halfway through, our old pal Jay-Z contemplates the lethality of Yoko Ono’s sex organs: “Know that shit gotta be lethal/ If that pussy broke up The Beatles.” At least the instrumental’s golden, hewn from the same Bhangra-rap as “Get Ur Freak On” and just as catchy over a decade later.
As a matter of fact, the same praises can be extended toward Timbaland and “J-Roc” Harmon’s production as a whole, which draws heavily from the infectious sleaze-funk of FutureSex/LoveSounds. On the sparkling “Cabaret” — this Experience’s “My Love” — they cleverly use a passionate Drake verse as an opportunity to segue into a finale that finally feels warranted. There’s a great, spine-tingling moment that arrives with the opening electric throbs of “Take Back the Night” and another when the sparse “Amnesia” unfurls to reveal its swooning center. Timberlake’s vocals coil around the clattering arrangements more deftly here, lending the proceedings a bit more heft than before. While they occasionally dip into country rock with tepid results (“Drink You Away, Only When I Walk Away”), Timbaland and Harmon are clearly at their best when they stick to the rigid structures of old.
Like most double albums, The 20/20 Experience begs questions of necessity: are all three hours and 20-some tracks really that crucial, and if so, what message remains to be gleaned from them? Depending on how well you liked the first go-round, you could argue one of two things: Timberlake is challenging the short-but-sweet paradigms of his art form by jotting down every concept that runs through his head, no matter how long-winded — a Use Your Illusion of his very own. Or you could argue the opposite, and think of the Experience as pop’s answer to The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ similarly-bloated Stadium Arcadium. Pared down and stripped to its primal rudiments, the latest Timberlake saga could have been something truly epic; instead, it just feels unnecessarily immense. But we’re dealing with the new king of pop here — did we really expect modesty?