More often than not, on the first installment of The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake proved to be an unreliable narrator, careening between the boastful bachelor and the blissfully betrothed, a man so in love with the institution of marriage that the mere mention of it had him jumping for joy on the cover of celebrity magazines.
The truth probably lies somewhere in-between, though, if you had a difficult time reconciling the sentiments of “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Let the Groove In” with those of “Mirrors” or “That Girl,” you certainly weren’t alone. If anything, the first 20/20 probably should have come with a neck brace; that’s how severe the thematic whiplash was.
Luckily, Timberlake has rectified that problem on The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2 . This is not an album that spends an awful lot of time dwelling on the sanguine struggles of a committed relationship. Instead, it celebrates the thrill of the chase, and the exuberance of the conquest. It’s a primal, pounding, passionate listen, from animalistic undertones (and actual animal noises) of opening track “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” and the boudoir boasts of “Cabaret” (even though Timberlake’s a professional, he likes to do his work at home) to the sex-as-bloodsport metaphors of “TKO” and the sultry, spiky sonics of “Only When I Walk Away.” Horns blare, guitars flare and the bass throbs. In short, there’s no time for subtlety here … JT’s trying to get it in.
Which makes the second 20/20 a rather fascinating companion piece to the first; that album worked overtime to create atmospheres, an insular world where Timberlake’s dual personas — part Frank Sinatra, part Frank Ocean — could coexist. Here, he’s largely concerned with emotional (and physical) release. The doting husband is all but nonexistent, aside from hidden track “Pair of Wings,” ceding his time on stage to the lurking lothario. If 20/20, 1 of 1 was about commitment, 2 of 2 is about courtship.
Aside from the odd detour — “You Got It On,” “Amnesia” — there’s nothing here that matches the slightly saccharine “Strawberry Bubblegum” or “Pusher Love Girl” (where JT compares his love to a bunch of drugs, but also plum wine), or the emotional depth of “Mirrors,” largely because there’s not supposed to be. Instead, we get the cocky swagger of “Murder,” the wide-screen strings and serpentine strut of “Amnesia,” and the come-hither coos of first single “Take Back the Night.” Timberlake’s intent is clear, and his suite of producers — Timbaland, J-Roc, Daniel Jones, etc. — are on board with the plan, crafting darker, deeper tracks for JT to explore his impulses. The songs are still plenty long, but they’re also more direct, which works incredibly well. If anything, 2 of 2 feels shorter and less weighty than 1 of 1, even though it’s a longer album.
In some ways, it seems like the second 20/20 is Timberlake’s attempt at answering critics who found his first effort too meandering, and placating fans howling for a return to his more radio-friendly past. Both of those things might be true, though it’s also possible that 2 of 2 may just be a more fun album; the one where JT cuts loose, has a few drinks, gets on the dancefloor and goes wild. And in that regard, I’m willing to bet it’s the one his fans like best.
Then again, Timberlake is probably beyond worrying about things like that. He’s entered the artistry phase of his career, after all, and earned the right to do so. If it takes him two albums and 140-odd minutes of music to fully sketch a portrait of himself, then so be it. And with this second album, he’s exploring the things he gave up to get where he is today, giving us the chaotic, coital counterpoint to the stability that comes with marital bliss. Both are equally valid viewpoints, too. There’s a reason he called this entire project The 20/20 Experience, after all: he’s giving us the full picture. No one ever said it was going be perfect, and perhaps all the pieces don’t quite fit, but hey, such is life. And love.