We knew it would come to this. We predicted back in March that Chronic Justin Timberlake Fatigue Epidemic (CJTFE) would be setting in soon enough—and that was before we even learned that The 20/20 Experience would be getting a second edition.
This week it's out, and given Timberlake's nine or so months spent hogging the limelight, it's probably no surprise that critics have finally soured on his luxury brand of upscale pop. Were we really expected to go for a 74-minute album of material that is readily acknowledged as a collection of outtakes from a (quite good, if overlong) 70-minute album? And anyway, there's already been speculation that the material was rushed to flesh out a Live Nation deal so JT would have something to promote on tour. Timberlake, naturally, has fallen out of favor with the indie generation that embraced him in 2006.
To be clear, The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 has plenty of good ideas—and some characteristically stylish production from Timbaland and J-Roc to flesh them out. But at well over an hour—with no less than five tracks skating aimlessly past the six-minute mark—the whole thing drags like a laundry bag packed tight with lyrical flops. Critics, unsurprisingly, haven't been kind to the excessive length of the whole thing. Awarding it four out of 10 stars, NME's Al Homer calls it "a bit of a mess":
But this surprise, extremely swift follow-on looks, from the cover to the contents, like pieces from the cutting-room floor cobbled together on the cheap. [...] With the average track length clocking in around six minutes, '…2 Of 2' drags on like a hostage saga.
While AllMusic's Andy Kellman, in a 2/5 review, rightly calls the disc's second half "a laborious crawl":
That's five songs in 37 minutes, though it's really six songs counting the hidden bit -- a solo acoustic ballad containing the line "If I could, I'd fly you away on a big ol' pair of wings." The album was sold separately and bundled with part one, not as The Complete 20/20 Experience, but as The 20/20 Experience: The Complete Experience. Taken in one shot, the complete version plays out like an excessively expanded edition of a three-star album.
But Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal hits where it really hurts: blasting it as "an album of awful pick up lines and phony angst, all over an endless bed of reheated production," he argues that JT, having fallen prey to "idiotic horniness," isn't even sexy anymore:
Timberlake recently joked that this new record is "more slutty" than its "virginal" partner, and its subject matter can certainly be offensive—not because of its sexual nature but rather how disturbingly unsexy the singer makes it all sound. Despite "SexyBack"—which, with its motorik pulse and metallic vocal effects, was more cybersex-y, anyway—Timberlake's lock-step perfectionism always lent itself more to idealized romance than unadulterated attraction. And too often here, his come-ons are corny enough to elicit facepalms from sixth graders.
And just about everyone's in consensus that "Pair of Wings," the nauseatingly rendered hidden acoustic track, is as necessary as rat poison. As Drowned in Sound's Dave Hanratty conjures it:
Hidden track 'Pair of Wings' steals in following some silence, unleashing the dreaded Big Acoustic Number. There's no two ways about this; it is an astonishingly bad song, and one hell of a questionable way to close out an especially questionable record. Saccharine to the point where it becomes uncomfortable (right around when JT softly coos about how he will scoop up his lady love and "fly away on a big 'ol pair of wings" against the most withering guitar line you'll endure for hopefully many a year), it trundles along, aimlessly, begging for someone to pull the plug.
So: did it have to be this way? Albums released around the same time—and compiled from the same sessions—as a previous record are almost never well received. Radiohead's Amnesiac was a spotty Kid A sequel at best; Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion discs are rarely considered critically without some quip that they should have been a single album. Timberlake should have known better.
But the larger question remains: is this the end of JT's unlikely run-in with critical favor? Back in 2006, when Timberlake released FutureSex/LoveSounds, he was still recognized as the boy band heartthrob rather than a world-class adult pop star. That the album went on to receive serious accolades from publications as rock- and indie-focused as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Blender marked a stunning shift. Suddenly, it wasn't just ok to like Justin Timberlake—it was verifiably cool to like Justin Timberlake. Has that well run dry?
Maybe this indeed is just a Live Nation deal gone awry and Timberlake simply doesn't want to be a pop star anymore. Among the most quietly scathing critiques of The 20/20 Experience's first act—or Timberlake's persona in general—comes from Grantland's Steven Hyden, who noted in March: "He now seems like an actor dabbling in music rather than a musician dabbling in acting." The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 isn't the most graceful way to get that message across.
All photos: Associated Press