Courtesy of justintimberlake.com

Justin Timberlake is a rare specimen. For a singer who began in “The Mickey Mouse Club” and ’N Sync, you’d think Timberlake would embody everything people love to hate about popular culture. Instead, he seemingly garners respect from everyone —critics and teenyboppers alike. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise because there’s simply no denying that Timberlake is a smart guy. Boy bands have always come with expiration dates, and Timberlake anticipated this by releasing two solo albums, 2002’s “Justified” and 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” Take into consideration his guest spots on popular hip-hop albums and a growing acting career, and you’ve got an entertainment force to be reckoned with.

Of course, if you’re Timberlake, sitting still isn’t an option. After a five-year musical hiatus, the entertainer dropped his third LP, “The 20/20 Experience,” this past March. With most of the album’s 10 songs clocking in over seven minutes and a lead single that incorporates elements of old-school soul and R&B, “The 20/20 Experience” promised unprecedented ambition and sophistication for mainstream music. In a sense, “20/20” lived up to that expectation. With its morphing song structures and extensive musical influences, the album offers the average music listener a rich, immersive sonic experience — one they can revisit and enjoy for more than just a fleeting moment.

Now, remember: even if you’ve just released a new album, sitting still is still not an option for Timberlake. That’s why on Sept. 30, just six months later, he released “The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2.”

All of this seems unbelievable. Could it be that he’s singlehandedly changing the pop game? Well, not quite. As the adage goes, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Unlike its predecessor, “2 of 2” gets bogged down by Timbaland’s dense and squeaky-clean production. For every track that soars with lush strings and tight falsetto, three feel like a sterile rehashing of R&B idioms.

Still, Timberlake clearly knows which of his songs are the strongest. That’s why “2 of 2” opens with the track “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want).” The song sets the album’s tone with a primal energy that pays homage to Michael Jackson. Timberlake’s biting delivery, accompanied by the track’s colorful instrumentation, makes for a wholly satisfying listening experience. Timberlake wants his listeners to tap into their inner animal, and he accomplishes just that.

Unfortunately, as the album continues, this inner animal becomes to feel more like a house cat. Tracks like “Cabaret” try to draw a sense of fun and energy but suffer from uninteresting and monotonous instrumentation. The track “Murder” strives to be the album’s darkest moment as its title would suggest, but Timberlake delivers a thoroughly dispassionate chorus, followed by a limp and listless verse from Jay-Z.

In its latter half, “2 of 2” returns to the more diverse array of styles found on “20/20.” On “Drink You Away,” Timberlake explores gospel-tinged soul, taking a break from the club-ready sound of the previous tracks. “You Got It On” is Timberlake’s attempt to tackle the Marvin Gaye-esque slow jam. Both tracks display Timberlake’s admirable efforts to incorporate older styles of music that are not prominent in today’s mainstream radio into his sound. Still, his intent is overshadowed by Timbaland’s questionable production. Both tracks feature lifeless beats and one-dimensional synthesizers that sound more like they came from a Casio keyboard than an A-list producer.

Timberlake stood for a noble cause with his release of the two “20/20” albums, a mission to awaken the pop world and celebrate musical diversity through unrestricted expression. Unfortunately, his experiment fell susceptible to the very qualities that characterize modern radio-ready music: clinical production and a lack of earnest delivery. With each lackluster song on “2 of 2,” it becomes harder and harder to root for Timberlake, especially when the rare gem of a track reveals the pop star’s potential to change the game.

Howard is a member of the class of 2017.



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