Trying to keep up with new records often feels like trying to plug a dam with a piece of chewing gum; the deluge is going to keep happening whether you like it or not, and you’re going to miss some things. The Slow Burn is our column where writers talk about albums they “missed”—which in today’s music Twitter era, could mean they didn’t listen to it in the 5 days around when it came out—and why they regret they didn’t get to the album till now. This edition covers Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience-Part 2.
Back in 2013, Justin Timberlake ended his post-FutureSex/LoveSounds musical hiatus, and like everyone, I was super excited by the first 20/20 Experience. I loved it so much, I wrote about it enthusiastically for a rap blog. I thought, and still think, that that album is a grown up version of what Timberlake was on in the mid-‘00s, and I still think “Spaceship Coupe” is one of the top seven Timberlake songs (I mean, come on, he bones an alien in that song, how can that be bad?).
But like most of the American public—who bought 968,000 copies of part 1 in its first week—I didn’t much care for The 20/20 Experience Part 2.
It sold 1/3 as many copies as the first half, though it did eventually sold more than a million copies. It also was less critically beloved; it’s Metacritic score is the lowest of Timberlake’s career. I never even bothered reviewing it; I thought I said all I could say about Timberlake in 2013, and after listening to the leak of Part 2, I pretty much wrote it off and moved on to new business. JT was back, which was a good thing; but like all good things, too much was more than I could take.
I hadn’t much thought of Part 2 in the intervening years, even after “TKO” became a staple of the music piped over the stereo at the University of Wisconsin gift store I worked at months after the album came out. But then, Chris Stapleton sauntered onstage at the CMA’s in a duster, and performed “Drink You Away” alongside Timberlake.
The performance was mostly notable because it sold thousands of copies of Stapleton’s debut LP, but my main takeaway—I liked that Stapleton album already, a performance with Timberlake didn’t mean anything to me in that regard—was that the Timberlake song “Drink You Away” totally ruled. I assumed it must be from some new album, and when I looked it up, I realized it was on the album I didn’t even like enough to listen to twice, Part 2. “Drink You Away” blew up on the charts, and Part 2 was back in the news.
It took me till this month to give the rest of Part 2 the reappraisal it needed. It’s still bloated—no song comes in shorter than four-and-a-half minutes-- and it’s still clearly the lesser experience in the 20/20 Experience—he doesn’t seek coitus with an alien on this one—but it’s a lot better in a bunch of ways than I, or most of the American public considered as being when it came out two and a half years ago.
First off, I feel like coming back to “Cabaret,” made me realize that it’s a lost classic as far as Drake guest verses go; he sounds pressed realizing he’s on a huge JT album, so he raps faster on there than he has since, and when he breaks it down to sing at the mid-point of his verse—and slips in a Boosie reference—I straight caught the holy ghost.
Secondly, the singles from this—“TKO,” “Take Back the Night,” “Not a Bad Thing” and “Drink You Away,”—are a stronger group than any pop album that’s come out since, and I’m even including 1989. The breadth of pop styles, the fact that Timberlake can go disco to bleary-eyed ballad in 3 moves; Timberlake is a national treasure and I regret doubting him.
That said, this is still his worst album, by a margin. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t soundtrack your next hangover, or soundtrack a night where you’re cruising through bars and parties, trying to make something happen. Listening to this the last two weeks has me more excited for new Timberlake music than about anything else this year.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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