When Justin Timberlake returned from a six-year musical hiatus earlier this year, his third studio album “The 20/20 Experience,” garnered critical acclaim. The album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 and the two singles, “Suit and Tie” and “Mirrors,” topped the charts in the U.S. and around the world.
Now, Timberlake is trying to keep the momentum going with the sequel, “The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2.” But unfortunately, his ambition to recreate another musical success follows in the wake of countless sequels that never manage to match the original. Instead, the second installment falls flat in its attempt to match the quality and enjoyability of the first.
For better or worse, the songs on the album could collectively be mistaken for the soundtrack to a nightclub that walks the line between classy and sleazy with the jazz rhythms and swelling synths that characterize Timberlake’s signature sexy sound.
The album’s promising first track, “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want),” has a catchy melody that promises an energetic tone for the album. But following a solid start, the album eventually falls victim to repetitiveness in sound and style, with just a few tracks managing to stand on their own.
The lead single, “Take Back the Night,” is one of the strongest, but though its upbeat, disco vibes capture Timberlake’s most popular sound, it avoids taking any musical risks and marks a Timberlake satisfied with safely following the path of past success.
The horns that initially made “Suit and Tie” so unique are heard in almost every track. Even the structure of certain songs mimics previous releases, with “Amnesia” copying the formula that brought us “Mirrors.”
Granted, some of the songs show glimpses of originality, but it’s usually in bizarre ways.
“Only When I Walk Away” stands out stylistically, involving more syncopated talking than singing. At 11 minutes, it’s the longest track on the album. Though Timberlake loves to defy the standard track length – most of “Part 2”’s tracks are between five and seven minutes – few songs can successfully keep the listener completely engaged for their runtime.
The effect holds true with “Only When I Walk Away.” though refreshing in its stylistic departure, the song’s blow-horn sound effects and extended run-time make it a strain to listen to all the way through.
“True Blood” also strays from Timberlake’s standard melodic formula, but is more bizarre than anything. Its ghoulish rap at the bridge (in the style of Vincent Price, no less), creepy wolf howling and random demonic laughter straight from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Yet, the effects don’t make the song any less unflatteringly eccentric with none of the spirit of Jackson’s original.
Timberlake has a reputation for a sensual style of music — after all, he did name his second album “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” but some of the lyrics in this album are so overtly sexual they take away from the singer’s usual sophistication.
He brags in “Cabaret,” “Got you saying Jesus so much, it’s like we’re laying in a manger,” while producer Timbaland raps in “TKO,” “She kill me with that coo coochie coochie coo.”
“Murder,” which features a verse from Jay Z, may sound melodically similar to the rest of the album with its pop beat and swelling synths, but edgy lyrics like “your body’s gonna end up under the ground” verge on distasteful, especially when paired with sexually aggressive undertones.
Only in “Drink You Away” does Timberlake back off the electronic jazz, something he should have done more throughout the album. The track’s country-pop guitars, soulful vocals and gospel choir make the sound melodic and offer a peek at something more in Timberlake’s wheelhouse that better showcases his considerable talent.
The second half of “The 20/20 Experience” will no doubt please fans of the first album’s throw-back aesthetic, but if Timberlake wants to make his musical comeback truly memorable, he should step out of his comfort zone and explore sounds that display his considerable artistic versatility and charisma.
** ½ out of five