September’s just about over. Sundresses and boat shoes have been swapped for sweaters and boots, and day parties will soon get replaced by cuffing sessions. We’re a week into autumn, and people are still conflicted about Justin Timberlake’s springy March album The 20/20 Experience. The blue-eyed crooner’s long-awaited third solo effort—FutureSex/LoveSounds dropped seven years prior—proved to be a sonically entertaining comeback and six months later, round two attempts to measure up to its former. The 11-track disc is a continuation of a two-part idea with right hand man Timbaland, building on material that didn’t make the trim first disc, but was too good to scrape into the trash. Leftovers, essentially. But see that’s the thing about leftovers; though they technically share the same physical makeup and flavors of the original meal, they don’t hit you with the same oomph in the second helping. Still, with The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2 Justin and Timbo serve up some songs that certainly hit the spot.
Once you sink your teeth into 2 of 2, there’s a noticeable tonal difference from its predecessor. In the words of J. Cole, it’s way darker this time. There are fewer sunny spots like “Suit & Tie” and “Strawberry Bubblegum” here (the closest you’ll get is the buoyant lead single, “Take Back the Night”). The low, saturated chords, dragging synths, electric guitars and warped voices lead us down a different path of his emotional psyche.
Unlike his first catalogue, where all of Justin’s encounters with the opposite sex are prom-pleasant, round two takes us through some of the rougher ordeals. His primal libido is realized by growling felines and trumpeting elephants on “What I Don’t Know (I Want).” Justin continues the druggy-love analogy he started on 1 of 2’s “Pusher Lover Girl” with “Can’t Drink You Away,” trying to drown a bitter memory of her by opening up a bar tab and taking Tennessee whiskies to the head. Then there’s “True Blood,” which attempts to breathe new life into Michael Jackson’s spooky classic “Thriller” with its howling wolves and cheesy wordplay, but instead comes off as a corny HBO endorsement.
Justin sticks to his previous structural pattern and enlists very few outside voices to help achieve his sound. Such prime real estate was reserved only for the top dogs: Jay Z, Drake and production partner Timbaland. Drizzy added his lover-boy swag (“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 you up when I do the thing to ya”) to the tail end of “Cabaret,” but his performance takes a backseat to Jay Z’s verse on the appropriately titled “Murder.” From the moment Hov utters “Yoko Ono, she got that Yoko Ono” you wish Jay would’ve adorned his Nothing Was The Same verses with the same lyrical dexterity. As for Justin’s prose, it’s sweet as Kool-Aid on the two-part finale “Not A Bad Thing,” which encourages the idea of free falling into love without the foresight of roadblocks and ulterior motives. “I know people make promises all the time, then they turn right around and break them/Then someone cuts your heart open with a knife, and you’re bleeding,” he croons warmly. “I can be that guy to heal it over time.”
For the album’s first five tracks, Justin Timberlake’s voice is just an accessory echoed and bent over Timbaland’s sophisticated beat-boxing and drum kicks. And it’s here where Timbo’s vocal presence—those signature chants and adlibs—becomes overbearing, occasionally distracting from J.T.’s flavor (see the extended intro to “TKO”). “Murder” is the transition to where the dance-dance production doesn’t upstage him. The sonic diversity and emergence of JT’s sanging voice on the later half of the record is what validates the sequel’s $10.99 price tag.
Take the aforementioned brilliant and genre-deviating album loner “Drink You Away,” which collides country guitars with funky church organs. Then, midway through the infectious ’70s rock number “Only When I Walk Away,” the beat transforms into a stuttering, percussive backdrop armed with steel drums and air horns that could’ve been shipped straight out of Kingston. Elsewhere, lush, dramatic strings usher in “Amnesia,” but it’s the twisted final 1:50 of the song that begs an extended version in the same way as the closing moments on The-Dream’s “Fancy” (thanks in advance!). Justin’s vocals on the sub-song are honest and haunting, sailing over 808s and melting violins.
While The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2 is occasionally a bit much to stomach, the highlights are worth making room for seconds. Luckily, Justin Timberlake knows his audience’s appetite and, ultimately, how to leave listeners satisfied. Are you finally full? —Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)