Album Review: Justin Timberlake, “The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2” (2013)

I was quite pleased when Justin Timberlake released his third studio album, The 20/20 Experience, earlier this year.  It was easy for me to label it as Timberlake’s best album to date; the disc was filled with catchy pop songs, unforgettable hooks, superb production (from Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon) and, of course, Timberlake’s smooth vocals.  I was charmed by most of the album, but there were a few songs that fell short, mostly due to being overly cheesy (“Spaceship Coupe”…really?!), too long (some of the tracks clocked in at ten minutes!), and poorly written.  So when Timberlake announced that there would be a “Part 2” to The 20/20 Experience, I was thrilled; maybe I’d get more of the wonderful songs I loved on the first half, and perhaps Timberlake would approve upon the not-so-great tracks.

The 20/20 Experience- 2/2 doesn’t really deliver on everything I hoped it would.  Despite Timberlake describing it as the second half of a whole album, it really just feels like a collection of B-sides.  My problem with this (and when any artist releases an album of B-sides/unreleased songs) is that there’s usually a reason these songs never saw the light of day: they simply weren’t good enough to make it onto a studio album.  There are very few artists whom I obsessively collect songs from; where I must listen to every B-side, every unfinished track, every demo…unfortunately, Timberlake isn’t one of them.

While there are a few glorious moments, they are truthfully few and far between, and the result is an album that seems a bit unnecessary.  Honestly, I think Timberlake (and his listeners) would’ve benefited from the best songs on Part 1 and Part 2 being consolidated to make one stellar album, but I digress.  Instead the result is one very good album (Part 1) and one mediocre album (Part 2).

Part 2 begins with what’s probably my favourite song on the album, Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want).  The track opens with an acappella verse of the chorus (“The sounds are calm when we become the animals that were made in the jungle…”), before the sound of drums and Timberlake’s trademark beatboxing come in.  The song has a great beat; drums, keyboard and electric guitar make up most of the sound, while Timbaland and Harmon are back as the producers, creating a flawlessly funky sound. The lyrics aren’t really worth noting, but the beauty of the track is its infectious beat, which just begs the listener to dance (or at least bob your head/tap your feet).

True Blood follows, and at first glance, I thought the song was some sort of tie-in for one of my favourite TV shows.  I was a bit disappointed to realize JT’s track had nothing to do with the HBO show of the same name, and even more disappointed after I listened to the full song.  First of all, the track is just tedious and entirely too long (a problem I had with many of the songs on Part 1), clocking in at 9:31.  Length aside, the song just isn’t great in general. It’s an obvious throwback to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; there’s the lyrics about a mysterious lover (“Black is the color of the night/When it’s time for feeding and her body wakes/There’s just something ’bout the demon that she brings out of me/When we raise hell I can’t stay away”), the ominous background noise (resplendent with a wolf howling during the choruses), and even a Vincent Price-esque voice over during the bridge.   Sadly, the Thriller paint-by-numbers formula fails; Thriller worked in the 80’s for Michael Jackson, but True Blood just seems like a cheesy rip-off now, and is one of the many songs on the album I end up skipping.

Justin Timberlake - The 2020 Experience World Tour - Charlotte, North Carolina (cropped)

Not all of the songs are as bad, thank goodness.  Cabaret is a sexy little R&B number, with Drake rapping during the bridges.  Timberlake’s silky falsetto is perfect during lines like, “Now can we discuss how fast you just got undressed? Girl if sex is a contest then you’re coming first,” and Drake adds some extra sex appeal to the song with his rap (“Got a bunch of old girls that I threw away for ya/I been in the gym doing two-a-days for ya/So I can lift ya up when I do the thang to ya/D-do do the thing to ya ”).  Lead single, Take Back The Night, is another delight;  the song has an 80’s sound to it which works well (much better than Timberlake’s other throwback attempt, at least), and boasts another danceable beat and more flawless production.

Drink You Away probably wins the prize for my second-favourite song on the album; the sound is drastically different from anything else on the album, with less of the flashy production, and more of a laid back sound. Timberlake even takes up the acoustic guitar during the track. The singing also sounds different, as Timberlake ditches his pretty falsetto in exchange for a grittier, old school rock ‘n roll sound; I can just imagine him drinking a shot of whisky before sitting down with the guitar and belting out this song.  The mournful lyrics (“I can’t drink you away/I’ve tried Jack, I’ve tried Jim/I’ve tried all of their friends/But I can’t drink you away”) go well with the heartbreak in Timberlake’s voice, and the song is one of the shining moments on the disc.

…and it’s pretty much the last shining moment.    The first time I heard TKO I thought it was a joke; the background music seemed played and out of date, Timbaland’s repetition of “you give me that koo-koo-koochie-coo” was laughable, and the whole boxing/love metaphor is just tired in general, now.  I’m still not sure why the song was chosen as a single- it’s easily one of the worst on the album.  Jay-Z appears on Murder, but he and Timberlake are unable to create the magic they had on “Suit & Tie”; instead, we get another poorly written, cheaply produced track that should’ve stayed unreleased.   Amnesia is forgettable except for its whiny chorus (mostly consisting of Timberlake singing the word “amnesia” over and over again). Timberlake’s singing on Only When I Walk Away is similarly annoying- sounding more like screeching than anything else.

The album ends with Not A Bad Thing, a breezy mid-tempo track that calls to mind Timberlake’s *NSYNC days with its sweet lyrics about falling in love (“Said all I want from you is to see you tomorrow/And every tomorrow, maybe you’ll let me borrow your heart/And is it too much to ask for every Sunday/And while we’re at it, throw in every other day to start ”).  Timberlake plays the part perfectly, singing the song in such a warm and alluring tone that you can’t help but to fall in love with his voice.   There’s an additional hidden track which appears after a few minutes of silence, called Pair Of Wings.  I have mixed feelings about the song. I enjoy listening to it- Timberlake’s voice could melt butter, and the soft melody plays on like a beautiful lullaby. But it’s again the lyrics that drag the song down. I’ve (unfavourably) compared Timberlake’s lyrics before to that of a high schooler’s poetry and this song sounds like something right out of a sophomore’s composition journal. Lines like, “If I had a pair of wingsI’d pick you up and fly you far away from here” and “all you’d have to pack is your heart to bring, and there we are, you and me- flying on a big old pair of wings” are just painfully bad, and since Timberlake is solely responsible for writing the song, there’s no one else to blame but him. The beautiful melody definitely saves the song from being a total train wreck, and whenever I listen to it, I just try to tune out the lyrics and focus on Timberlake’s gorgeous vocals instead.

I’ll give him credit for being ambitious, but it wasn’t really necessary for Justin Timberlake to release two albums within the same year.  20/20 Experience – 2/2 has its moments, but most of the album falls flat, and anyone who owned Part 1 will agree that both albums could’ve just been combined (with the weaker songs scrapped) to make one solid release.

Rating: 3_stars.svg

My suggested tracklist (for both Part 1 & Part 2):
1. Pusher Love Girl
2. Suit & Tie
3. Tunnel Vision
4. Let The Groove Get In
5. Mirrors
6. Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)
7. Cabaret
8. Take Back The Night
9. Drink You Away
10. Not A Bad Thing

Tracklist (the real thing)
1. Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)
2. True Blood
3. Cabaret
4. T.K.O.
5. Take Back the Night
6. Murder
7. Drink You Away
8. You Got It On
9. Amnesia
10. Only When I Walk Away
11. Not a Bad Thing

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjty080jy60]
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