Thursday, September 26, 2013

album review: 'the 20/20 experience 2 of 2' by justin timberlake

Okay, let's try this again.

For those of you who don't know, I've already said my lengthy piece on Justin Timberlake earlier this year, and as much as I was hoping that my views would evolve or change, I'm still not the biggest fan of that album, and the majority of my issues with Justin Timberlake have unfortunately persisted six months later. For a brief recap, I did like some of the elements of The 20/20 Experience - the production, most of the instrumentation, and the fact that Justin seemed to be actually trying - but to me the album fell short because of serious bloat and the fact that the lyrics simply weren't up to the task of sustaining longer songs. These problems seemed to be linked to a few issues that have always stopped me from really liking Justin Timberlake, for as much class and swagger and professionalism he brings to pop music, I've never liked his towering ego or the fact that he never seemed to care as much about his art as other artists. Some acts seem like they make pop music because they want to enhance the medium or express deeply held emotions that they can't articulate any other way - Justin Timberlake, on the other hand, seems to make pop music just because he can, almost on a whim, and he's good enough to get away with such nonchalance when it comes to his career because he's seriously talented and supported by some of the best acts in the industry (particularly Timbaland, who is filling the role of Quincy Jones to Justin's Michael Jackson).

But that wasn't to deride the elements of The 20/20 Experience that worked - and really, it was an album that worked better in pieces than as a whole. I was happy to see 'Mirrors', the best song on the album and a favourite of mine, rise to chart success, but at the same time, it was also a song that was criticized for being a prime example of Justin Timberlake's hubris. And while that was certainly true, the bigger example of that arrogance for me was his sudden announcement in May that he was going to be releasing another album later this year, the follow-up to his March release called The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 (man, that's an awkward title - that 'of 2' doesn't fit well there), reportedly composed of extra material from the original recording sessions.

Now to me, this set off all kinds of warning bells. For one, it smacked of a cash-in - given how well The 20/20 Experience sold, it wasn't entirely surprising that Justin was looking to terminate the label obligations he clearly loathed by dropping a second record that year. But from an artistic angle, it also was a massive warning sign for me, because not only did it mean that Justin took the same recording methodology into the studio with him with the bloated songs and lack of restraint, but it also looked like these were the leftover tracks that weren't strong enough to make it to the first album (and judging by the disappointing chart performance of 'Take Back The Night', the first single, the public might agree). But even if they weren't and were grouped for the second album during the initial recording process... Jesus, JT, did you not learn the lesson that Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day suffered through last year, releasing three albums of material in the space of months when they all could have been trimmed of the chaff and compressed down to a single, much more solid release? Furthermore, the element of expectation is completely gone here, and any element of wonder garnered from the return from hiatus is absent. To me, this album was a bad idea from the start, and I went in with low, low expectations about how well it would materialize.

So, how did The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 turn out?

Well, I definitely understand now why this album was not the first part of the whole '20/20 Experience' project that was released - because this was the album that Justin decided to place his material that was darker, weirder, more experimental, and not as good. If you want my review of The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 in a nutshell, that's it. I'm not saying that it's terrible or anywhere close to the calamitous disasters that was Green Day's multi-album experiment last year, but as I had expected, it has all of the problems of The 20/20 Experience, plus more. Or, to put it another way, this is the Justin Timberlake album that contains a country song

I wish I was kidding.

Okay, so let's start with what Justin Timberlake gets right, which is pretty much everything got right on the previous album, so I'll opt to keep this brief. As I've said in the past, Justin Timberlake has a lot of charisma and is a great performer. He has a beautiful voice and one of the better falsettos in modern pop. Furthermore, it's always nice to see Justin actually trying in his music, and it's good to see some real emotion in his delivery, which I'll admit shows up more than I was expecting on this album. And as always, the man brings a serious amount of class and suave opulence to his material - albeit with a very different flavour this time around (I'll come back to this). And while the man is unquestionably arrogant, there are points when such untouchable confidence can be made to work well in his favour (although maybe that's in proximity to his guest stars).

And you know, the instrumentation has a lot of distinctive variety and personality, I'll give JT that. You're not going to hear a more diverse collection of beats on any album this year, and while it does make the album something of a mess in terms of coherency, it's an interesting mess at least. There's distinctive 70s flavour with the bass lines and horns that seem to imported from a seedy disco lounge, the classical string sections and tinkling keyboards sliding in whenever there seems to be a need for a vestige of class, and all brought together under Timbaland's tight, compressed, modern flavour, with even hints on trap instrumentation popping up early on the album on tracks like 'TKO'. In particular, if the first album of The 20/20 Experience was 'lighter' in tone, the 'daylight album' - softer, more love-struck, not as explicitly sexual - this album is the 'night album'. It's darker, glassier, more sexual, and it twists Justin Timberlake's classic debonair persona into something more akin to a noir styling on some tracks. And you know, he's a good fit for it - Justin Timberlake made Futuresex/Lovesounds, he proved he could pull off this sort of wilder material years ago, and 'morally compromised' Justin Timberlake can be interesting. Of course, that sort of persona doesn't last until the end of the album - the eleven-and-a-half minute double acoustic ballad 'Not A Bad Thing' restores Justin TImberlake's heartfelt sentimentality so quickly that I wondered if he had been teleported back to N'Sync - but it at least added something of a new dimension to Timberlake's delivery.

The problems, however, haven't gone away since the first 20/20 Experience, so let's get the minor gripes out of the way. One of the things I recently observed, having revisited The 20/20 Experience before listening to this album, was the production, and while it might be better than most pop-music in letting some of the unique sounds and elements into the mix, it's surprisingly shallow, not letting deeper or more flavourful sounds gain a lot of timbre or depth to give them more weight, and on The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2, I couldn't stop noticing it, particularly at any point when JT was looking for an organic sound. Everything on this mix sounded compressed and close to the top, which admittedly formed an intricate whole, but it felt like a lot of the elements were surface gloss to make the tracks sound more complex than they really were, and that frustrated me. And what's worse, when they did try to 'deepen' the production, make it sound like it had more depth and weight, they simply added watery layers to the sound that mutes any edges or real texture that might develop. Granted, there are a few tracks where the production is marginally better - 'Only When I Walk Away' takes a simmering guitar rift to anchor the track and it adds a little depth - but then you have the second part of 'Not A Bad Thing' where it's clear Timberlake is trying to be more intimate, and the vocal production sounds completely flat and doesn't let any texture in JT's voice fully develop.

And of course this album is bloated - the average length of the songs on this album is over five minutes, with about half of the tracks reaching past seven. As I've said in the past, if Justin Timberlake had something to say or his pop songs had enough content to justify seven minutes worth of material - or hell, he bothered to introduce an impressive instrumental solo, or his transitions weren't clunky as all hell - I'd be more tolerable of these longer songs, but once again, it's just bloated excess that only serves JT's ego.  And perhaps it has been a mistake on my part to be revisiting the Dream Theater discography in preparation for their new album while I listened to this, but in comparison to their lengthy instrumental solos and big ideas that they used to fill their massive songs, Justin Timberlake's longer songs just feel painfully underweight. And keep in mind, JT, you were the one who invited these comparisons when you openly made the statement, 'Well, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd made longer songs, so why can't we?'

But here's the funny thing - if there was a Justin Timberlake album that could have had the potential to sustain longer songs, it'd be this one. JT's darker, more sexual subject material is more unique here than the collection of love songs and bragging tracks he had from his first album, and there is more experimentation. However, there's something about the experimentation on this album in particular that feels extraordinarily calculated, even while Justin Timberlake works to sell it like mad. 'True Blood', for instance, is a vampire song in every sense of the word (it will be paired with the TV show at some point in this next season, mark my words)... and yet, it suspiciously felt way too much like Justin Timberlake was trying to write his version of 'Thriller'. I've long held that Justin TImberlake has wanted to take the throne of Michael Jackson, and he proves it on this album with 'True Blood' and 'Take Back The Night' (which couldn't be trying to emulate 'Wanna Be Startin' Something' harder if they sampled it). And all throughout this album, you see a lot of the genre-hopping and inroads into sexual material that characterized Michael Jackson's material. On this album, Justin makes his songs about animalistic lust in 'Gimme What I Don't Wanna Know (I Want), his smoky noir songs in 'Cabaret' and 'Murder', his mid-80s slow jam in 'You Get It On' (and incidentally, there are some seriously creepy lyrics in this song), and even his white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar number in 'Not A Bad Thing'. Hell, he even goes back to his boy-band days with 'Amnesia', which sounds like a late-period N'Sync outtake (and unsurprisingly, I kind of liked it).

And of course, we have the country number 'Drink You Away', and since I'm pretty much one of the few country music critics who review this sort of material online, I can speak with complete honesty and say that the Zac Brown Band and Kacey Musgraves are completely right with regards to mainstream country when it comes to this. Not only does Justin Timberlake deliver the most inauthentic, completely devoid of texture country music I've ever heard (the organ breakdown is kind of nice, though), his voice is a terrible fit for the instrumentation because it's way too polished and clean. Even while I'm not anywhere close to a fan of Justin Moore, I can say at least he gets country music better than Justin Timberlake! And really, it's this song that encapsulates my issues with Justin TImberlake's experimentation: he might get the artifice or basic elements of the genres he's looking to emulate, and he's certainly trying to sell that he's making inroads here and being all experimental, but there's not the slightest bit of evidence that he understands these genres or cares about what makes them work. Everything - even most his attempts at noir - feel very synthetic, like he understands the broad strokes but hasn't grasped the subtleties, which is only reinforced by his lyrics which might contain some of the sexual flavour, but only brush the surface. 

And sure, you could make the argument that he's reinterpreting them under his own stylistic vision (which I suspect is his justification), but it still sounds like he hasn't done the necessary legwork to make the tracks have real soul or look like anything other than a bored multi-millionaire artist trying on several different genres just because he can. Not because he's using said genres to make a point, or some deeper message, but simply to brag about himself and all the sex he gets. Or, to put it another way, when Ke$ha wanted to recreate punk rock, she recruited Iggy Pop for 'Dirty Love'. When she wanted to try her hand at psychedelic rock, she worked with The Flaming Lips. When Janelle Monae was experimenting with R&B on her most recent album, she got Prince. But when you decided to check out a noir style, JT, you recruited... Jay Z and Drake. And honestly, I think the only reason your performance on those songs is tolerable is because a.) you get the darker brand of sexuality better than most and b.) both of them absolutely suck on their verses. I know you've got a great relationship with Jay Z, Justin Timberlake, so I get why he dropped his lazy verse here, but Drake? Man, he sounds out of place trying to brag about his hook-up here, and it's jarring. You couldn't have gotten a rapper who understands that darker, more sexual theatrical style that harkens back to past like, say, Andre 3000?

And as for any attempts at talking about the harder-edged hip-hop of today, Justin Timberlake does go after this in 'TKO', one of the few times I think I've ever heard him talk about a failed relationship and an ex... and man, does it backfire big time, even beyond the lackluster trap instrumentation. Look, JT, I'm not a fan of your ego complex, but your bragging is a lot better fit than these mean-spirited little sniping sessions that try to cast you as the victim! When you spend your entire album hyping yourself up, you can't expect to buy into this! The one other time he talks about a failed relationship is on the boy-band callback 'Amnesia' (which is nowhere near as good as the Chumbawamba song of the same name)... and you know what, I bought into it, at least. It sounds more authentic than anything else on this album!

So, to conclude this already over-long review, I was not impressed by The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2, as it feels more than a little like a cash-in. To me, it felt like Justin Timberlake wanted to experiment with new genres or flip up his script into something new... and yet wasn't willing to put the effort into making it anything beyond a surface-level recording. Coupled with lyrics that weren't terrible but certainly aren't worth remembering, and his rampant egotism still running wild all over the album with the bloated songs and complete lack of restraint in the production, I can't really recommend this album. That being said, there is some quality and variety on this album, and Justin Timberlake, despite all of my issues with the man, is an incredibly skilled performer and it saves this album from being a complete disaster. Yet on the other hand, as an album it's not as catchy or as original as his last album, with too many of the songs feeling like pale facsimiles of the genres they're aping with little new to be brought to the table, and none of the real flavour. So with that... 6/10. 

I already know some of you will think I'm being harsh or unfair, but you know what? I honestly do believe that Justin TImberlake is a better performer and a better artist than this. I know he doesn't have to impress me or any nonsense like that, but I'd like to see him check his ego at the door and try to be his own unique artist rather than trying to appropriate the legacies of acts that came before him. If you did that, I promise that you'll be remembered with your unique legacy all the same.

1 comment:

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