Somebody get this man an editor. Just six months after disgorging The 20/20 Experience, a ten-track, 70-minute opus, Justin Timberlake is back with another record, awkwardly billed as The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2, which, come to think of it, tells the tale: this is less an album release than a data dump.
Taken together, 1 of 2 and 2 of 2 clock in at just under 145 minutes. (Alternate title: The 20+20+20+20+20+20+20+4:27 Experience.) There’s nothing wrong with long album running lengths, per se, but in nearly every case here, Timberlake’s music sounds stretched thin; the songs sprawl not because they’re going anywhere especially, but because, well, why not? You’re left with the impression that someone Crazy Glued the mixing-board fader in the “on” position — that Timberlake and his producers Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon let nothing fall to the proverbial cutting-room floor, left no vamp unvamped. To take one example: Up until about 5:30 in, I was fine, even good, with the breakdown in “True Blood,” a goofy bit of “Thriller”-manqué Halloween pop. By minute seven, the dull throbbing in my temples was spreading southward, into my dental fillings, and then moving down further, into the depths of my soul. When the song rounded the bend into minute nine, I found myself reaching for the nearest copy of “American Pie.”
I count three good songs on 2 of 2, or two and a half good ones. There’s the thick-set electro-funk album opener “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)”; the bristling “Cabaret,” a sterling piece of Timbaland production that goes about its business efficiently (running time: 4:33); and the simmering “You Got It,” a showcase for Timberlake’s falsetto that might have been really good had they not kept the pot on boil for at least two minutes past al dente. There are some outright embarrassments, too. Exhibit A: “Murder,” a song about — no other way to put it — vagina dentata, with an unspeakably lame Jay Z rap that slags off Yoko Ono en route to the worst couplet in hip-hop history: “Chocha / Ruined pop culture.” Timberlake has told interviewers that the new record is the sexy, “dirty,” clubbier counterpart to the first album’s romantic throwback-soul. Personally, I can’t hear many meaningful differences. They are merely different species of messy.
All in all, it’s a big bummer. The 20/20 albums are as disappointing as Justified (2002) and FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006) were great. For a performer as naturally appealing as Timberlake, it’s hard to make records this uninviting. As best as I can tell, Timberlake’s charm might be the problem: He’s a guy used to gusting through the world — through stadium concerts and SNL skits and red-carpet interviews — on sheer talent and charisma, so why wouldn’t he assume that he could make an awesome record by stretching out a bunch of Timbaland beats toward the horizon and putting the charm on blast? The truth is that pop music, at least the kind that Timberlake wants to make, depends on songs. Compare with the recent releases by Timberlake’s competitors in the pop-soul stakes: Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, Bruno Mars’s Unorthodox Jukebox, and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. All three albums are full of catchy, clever, sharp songs — songs, incidentally, that in most cases have their say in four and a half minutes or under. Brevity, you might say, is the wit of soul.