Lyrical downfalls and mediocre moments are saved by solid production and flawless vocals on a sexy, edgy sequel to the clean-cut 20/20 Experience.
Justin Timberlake fans are still basking in the martini-drinking, suit-wearing, gold-plated visions of The 20/20 Experience, but the pop crooner’s sights are already set on the steamy after party. The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 evokes the grit, sweat and sex missing from the first iteration, which took its extravagant vibe to the top of the charts as the best-selling record of 2013 so far. Timberlake has already pulled fans in with the effort’s lead single, “Take Back The Night,” which dropped in July and set the scene for a departure from part one’s themes. It’s clear that JT is determined to outdo himself with the help of Timbaland’s cinematic production and cameos from Jay-Z and Drake, but the album isn’t without its shortcomings; there’s a fine line between grandiose and cheesy.
2 of 2 opens with “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want),” Timberlake’s pop answer to Guns ‘n’ Roses classic “Welcome to the Jungle.” Elephant and bird sounds punctuate the track, which is saved by heavy showcases of multi-layered harmonies from JT. Next, it launches straight into “True Blood” (a nod to the HBO show of the same name), which starts off as a sexy vampire ballad, but is soon derailed by wolf howls and ghoulish cackles that seem to have been sampled from a haunted house sound effect CD (Just in time for Halloween!). Aside from a couple over-the-top sample moments, both tracks successfully pull listeners into JT’s dark, twisted vampire jungle of an after party with upbeat dance tempos.
The strength of the effort’s production only gets better from there, shining as the true star of the album. Timbo teamed up with Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon, Daniel Jones, and Rob Knox to create a cohesive work that stretches to incorporate the soothing sounds of violins, edgy guitars and modern electronic sounds. There’s enough variety among tracks to keep interest peaked throughout all 74 minutes, but it also doesn’t seem disconnected either. The team even injects a little southern soul on “Drink You Away,” where you can almost see Timberlake slumped up against a bar in Nashville with a shot of whisky in hand as he sings in anguish of a past lover.
His smooth vocals develop over the record into an instrument in their own right, which is good since many of his lyrics fall short of the intrigue pulled off in 20/20 part one. JT’s guilty of borrowing generic stories from concepts-past, like romance-filled nights (The groove-laden “You Got It On”) and going clubbing (“Take Back the Night”). Then there are lyrics that are straight-up weird - Just look to “Cabaret” for lines like “I got you saying Jesus so much/It’s like we’re laying in the manger.”
The album closer, “Not A Bad Thing,” stands out in its stripped-down production and vibe harkening back to JT’s boy-band days. He sings of timeless teen love that he can only hope will capture the hearts of longtime fans with a little late-90s pop flavor. “I know people make promises all the time/Then they turn right around and break them/When someone cuts your heart open with a knife, while you beating/But I could be that guy to heal it over time/And I won’t stop until you believe it.”
Though the album is a little hit-or-miss, fans won’t complain about getting two full-lengths in six months, and will surely find something to love on 2 of 2. And even in the midst of its less memorable moments, the effort remains an adequate follow-up to 2013’s most successful release.