By this point, complaining about how long Justin Timberlake’s songs are is probably beside the point. It was hardly a surprising revelation that there would be a second installment of March’s The 20/20 Experience—an album that, with its roster of marathon-distance jams, didn’t exactly want for extension. When Michael Jackson was given MTV’s Video Vanguard Award back in 1988, he spoke for a minute or two; Jimmy Fallon’s distended introductory speech on Timberlake’s behalf at last month’s Video Music Awards lasted at least twice as long. As for Timberlake’s performance itself, well, rumor has it that he’s still indulging himself at Barclays Center for the 34th straight day with yet one more chorus of “What Goes Around…Comes Around.”
So pointing out that there’s only one single song on The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 that runs less than five minutes long is like observing that water is wet, that the sky is blue, and that twerking has brought sexy back. The title of the entire project should’ve clued everyone into Timberlake’s intention to reward his own long-range vision. Not on board? Grab a pair of Coke bottles, Poindexter. Timberlake actively courts the more impatient members of his audience from the very first song, projecting onto them the mantra “Give Me What I Don’t Know (I Want),” assuring them that their excitement isn’t misplaced, even if their wandering ears seem destined to betray them. As a call to arms, it’s actually about as approachable as anything on the album, with softball beatboxing underneath unthreatening R&B harmonies, with Timberlake promising, “Baby, I act like a gentleman that your mother would love, come get to know me.”
That claim, like the song’s comparative brevity, is a red herring, because much of what follows is notably darker in tone than the songs on The 20/20 Experience; it’s the fugue to the first volume’s prelude. Even the title of the breezy lead single, “Take Back the Night,” had feminists and literalists sniffing out false flags (“Does Justin Timberlake endorse date rape?”) well before the song regrettably popped up in a Bud Light Premium spot in heavy rotation on YouTube (“When you’re up for anything…”). The Rod Temperton flourishes of the undeservedly underperforming single aside, it’s become apparent that JT is no longer content to simply harness MJ’s musical mannerisms. He’s also started to interpolate Jacko’s paranoiac compulsions. “True Blood” recasts sex as a blame-the-victim horror movie in which the red-eyed object of Timberlake’s desire calls up “the demon in me…and the bones in my body start to quake.” The brisk groove spins like a demented top, breaking down from what’s already been broken down, taunting Timberlake into a whirlpool of horn-dog dementia. The climactic sample of Vincent Price’s “Thriller” cackle is the final nail in the
From devilish possession to pugilism, the blunt, unpleasant “TKO” defines the volleys of courtship as the exchange of blows in a brutally violent bout, but it’s all cool because “the rematch sex is amazing” (that metaphor alone assures the girl in question wins this round on points). Elsewhere, love is alcoholism (the honky-tonking “Drink You Away”), burlesque (the start-n’-stop “Cabaret,” a hearty callback to producer Timbaland’s early days), neurological disorders (“Amnesia,” a surprisingly elegant R&B waltz). But Timberlake truly hits his captivating rock bottom in “Murder,” which swaps Colonel Mustard’s candlestick for Miss Scarlet’s snatch among his tool chest of homicidal instruments, and throws in whiffs of necrophilia for good measure: “Girl, your body is gonna end up under the ground, under the ground/I’ll be down and throw it at that level.” And yet, the track doesn’t get truly lethal until Jay-Z arrives, observing: “Yoko Ono, she got that Yoko Ono, you know that shit that made John Lennon go solo/Know that shit got to be lethal if that pussy broke up the Beatles/Chocha ruined pop culture.” Truly the words of a man whose artistry was long ago surpassed by his better half.
When you have something you want to share with the world, you do so quickly and directly. When you have something you want to hide from the world, you dodge and meander. Ultimately, 2 of 2 doesn’t so much eclipse its predecessor as it settles into the format more believably. Its subject matter goes further into the disquieting root of what it means to be obsessed with a celebrity (Jackson) who was himself already intensely obsessed with his own persona. Throughout, Timberlake acts as though he’s directing his gaze upon various vampire, corpse, and slasher women, but they’re all McGuffins for his own insatiable drive toward brand-name status. In that sense, this volume’s shady undertones are a better match for Timberlake’s inability to self-edit than the first half’s chipper gloss. Can’t wait for the confessional follow-up EP.