“He’s so talented he can do anything!” That’s the gist of what’s typically said about Justin Timberlake, and for the most part it’s absolutely true. He’s an exceptionally nimble and unfettered singer/dancer, an extraordinary mimic with a drummer’s sense of timing. These gifts have helped him tremendously in comedy as well as drama, and despite the increasing maturity of his music and acting pursuits, he hasn’t let go of his ample boyish charm: This ex-Mouseketeer, ex-’N Sync-er still radiates mischievous yet all-American fun. And unlike so many stars who attain thoroughly mainstream saturation, he takes genuine risks that have actually increased his popularity: His last album, 2007′s FutureSex/LoveSounds, packs way more sonic, rhythmic and compositional quirks than most records that sell more than 10 million copies.
These are the stats that have empowered Timberlake to make a supremely — and, at times, foolishly — confident 20/20 Experience. The first of two full albums released six months apart is 70 minutes but only 10 songs long. Most are straightforward from a songwriting standpoint: “Tunnel Vision,” “That Girl” and several others see-saw back and forth between two chords for extended and sometimes relatively static periods with minimal contrasts between verses and choruses. But most are also complex in arrangement and texture, adding and subtracting rhythm and tempo as they smoothly groove along. Although some like “Don’t Hold the Wall” accelerate into dance tracks, the overriding vibe is more bedroom/strip club than dancefloor, as if Timberlake envisioned a Prince album almost entirely comprised of deep cut ballads. Aside from the singles “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors,” which both draw from the opposing worlds of blatant chart pop and PBR&B, there’s little indication that anyone tried terribly hard to write hooks. Instead, this feels like a deservedly rich guy’s willfully anti-commercial fantasy of bohemian retro-futurist soul mother lode.
As such, Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE looms large over 20/20. But where Ocean employed complex chords and fearlessly soul-searched, this uncomplicatedly happy guy simply riffs on sex, status and his favorite records. He’s still in cahoots with Timbaland, the super-producer who practically invented these lurching, squelchy electro slow jams decades ago with Aaliyah and Ginuwine. Symphonic string swells and big band horn blasts may punctuate the otherwise slinky likes of “Pusher Love Girl,” but Timbaland doesn’t take Timberlake too far from Southern hip-hop: 20/20 is mixed to favor jeep-bumping bass that tends to blur the tony details that have been showcased far more successfully in the entertainer’s televised performances of this material. As such, it already feels more like a stepping-stone for multi-million-dollar tours, endorsement deals and general world domination than an entirely satisfying autonomous listening experience. Suit and tie aside, it’s simultaneously over and underdressed.
The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 combines outtakes with newly-recorded material. That suggests that much of 2 of 2 is not a whole lot different from what came immediately before it, and in one way that’s true: Also created with Timbaland and his studio sidekick Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, 2 of 2 is heavy on protracted, deluxe arrangements just like its predecessor. Featuring a slightly shorter average composition length, it is nevertheless still an album of jumbo cuts: 74-and-a-half minutes distributed among 12 tracks. Be sure to wait for “Pair of Wings,” the blissful acoustic ballad that’s hidden at the end of “Not a Bad Thing.”
But as its first single, the breezy, Off the Wall-flavored disco jam “Take Back the Night” suggests, 2 of 2 is faster and more dancefloor-friendly than much of the first 20/20, and therefore strikes with far greater instant impact: Opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” proves Timberlake remains the only superstar who can spit human beat-boxing ticks and tocks while keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek. He’s only a randy euphemism away from his SNL self-parodying self. A song about putting on a private show for one’s paramour, “Cabaret” boasts the naughtiest, most blasphemous line he’s ever dared sing: “I got you saying ‘Jesus’ so much it’s like we’re lying in a manger.”
The big difference is that these rigorous and rhythmic cuts are better suited the substantial song size: The longest one, “True Blood,” pumps from start to finish with a slew of breakdowns, buildups, contractions and expansions. Aside from the hard-rocking grinder “Only When I Walk Away,” there are few surprises. “Amnesia” has a sweet symphonic left-turn after the song’s main body fades — just like some of the first half of 20/20. Mostly, this is just Timberlake and Timbaland doing what they do best: Laying down the heavenly beats, ramping up the devilish charm and trouncing most mainstream contenders.