The naysayers were completely wrong. “Suit & Tie” came along and it was a new (old) sound from the duo, while “Mirrors” found JT’s new soul-and-champagne aesthetic coalescing beautifully with Timbaland’s brittle space beats, and everyone realized the duo knew exactly what they were doing. The comeback ended up being a triumph, critically and commercially, so when Timberlake announced that there’d be a second volume of 20/20, we accepted this as a great thing. Six years of waiting ends with two albums! Pop’s attempt at Use Your Illusion I and II!
We let our guard down. The 20/20 Experience – 2 Of 2 (out ) is the misstep we were bracing for back in March. The naysayers were completely right.
Volume 2 opens with a grand a cappella harmony — sort of a parallel to the sweeping strings that start the first installment. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few striking moments on a jarringly generic album. Gone is the extravagance, gone is the classy entertainer charm, as Timberlake spends much of the first half of this volume sing-talking in his lower “cool dude” register, with listeners forced to claw through thickets of Timbaland tropes to find any semblance of a hook or chorus. Side one amounts to a lot of moving parts going nowhere.
Opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” is a clunky jungle-as-sex metaphor that probably should’ve been erased from existence the moment Bruno Mars‘ “Gorilla” emerged. “True Blood” is a clunky vampirism-as-sex metaphor trying to coast on the fact that it’s a “Thriller” homage, but with that “ha ha ha” refrain can’t even function as a Lady Gaga demo homage. “TKO” is a clunky boxing-as-sex metaphor over a 2005 beat. “Cabaret,” a clunky bedroom-as-burlesque metaphor, but at least it’s redeemed by Drake‘s verse. (Compare that to Jay Z, who on “Murder” does the exact opposite of what the title says, somehow turning in a verse even worse than his turn on the mic in “Suit & Tie.”)
Even Part 1′s bonus tracks have more vitality and melody than this opening suite. This is all good news for “Take Back The Night,” which has never sounded better than it does next to these misfires. It’s a much more effective homage to MJ than “True Blood,” and the fizzy disco bounce swoops in to save Timbaland from himself. (Timbo should get as much of the blame as Justin for the failures on this album. Not only are these some of his least exciting beats, but he also spends far too much time doing his ridiculous hype man carnival barking over much of the proceedings. Nobody has ever said “I just wish the song had more background chatter from Timbaland,” and this album guarantees nobody ever will.)
JT, Tim and J-Roc are better than this, and the guys redeem themselves on side two. “Drink You Away” is by far the album’s most interesting cut, melding barroom rock with glossy studio flair, like the trio had an epiphany while listening to Born This Way. It’s really the first time Timberlake’s voice sounds as strong and smooth as it did on Volume 1, and it has an actual, honest-to-God chorus that you can sing along to.
The rich vocals and hooks stick around for “You Got It On,” which would fit right in sandwiched between “Pusher Love Girl” and “That Girl.” On the oustanding “Only When I Walk Away,” Timberlake yelps over a dirty blues riff, before it all melts away into a reggae fever dream. Finally, motion that’s getting us somewhere.
Tracks seven through 11 are nearly as strong as anything on Volume 1 (though it’s worth noting the very enjoyable “Mirrors” ripoff “Not A Bad Thing” would never stand a chance against the original). The comeback to the comeback should’ve stopped there. It didn’t. Hidden 12th track “Pair Of Wings” is a pretty standard acoustic ballad, if the standard is insipid fifth grade poetry. There are roughly five lines repeated throughout the six-minute (!) song, all of them terrible, including: “All you’d have to pack is your heart to bring / And there we are, you and me / Flying on a big ol’ pair of wings,” “We keep getting older / The world keeps getting colder / Tell me when did we lose our way.” It makes “Hi, my name is Bob and I work at my job” sound like Dylan.
How “Pair Of Wings” and half the other songs on this album got through any vetting process and were deemed worthy follow-ups to Part 1, we may never know (hopefully that making-of will delve into it!). It’s the first real blemish on JT’s catalog, and more than disappointment, The 20/20 Experience – 2 Of 2 elicits frustration, because it was so unnecessary. Justin Timberlake didn’t need to do this, and that’s exactly how it sounds.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Carl Williott