2.5 stars (out of 4)
After six years spent focusing primarily on his acting career, Justin Timberlake returned this year with not one but two albums. “The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2” (RCA), released only months after “The 20/20 Experience,” shares many of its predecessor’s strengths and weaknesses.
The tracks, culled from a marathon recording session with producer Timbaland, are long and ambitious; 5 of the 11 exceed 7 minutes and only one clocks in at under 5 minutes. They touch on classic disco (“Take Back the Night,” which sounds like it could’ve been lifted from Michael Jackson’s classic 1979 “Off the Wall” album), gospel-blues (“Drink You Away”), feathery Motown-style ballads (“You Got it On”) and Asian dance music (“True Blood”). The interplay between the layered percussion and Timberlake’s vocals becomes a dance in itself. On “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want),” the singer turns into a one-man choir as he plays call-and-response lead vocals against a wordless background swirl.
He’s not a powerful singer; next to Jay Z in the lusty “Murder” he sounds boyish, and he’s not persuasive playing the going-down-slow narrator in “Drink You Away.” But he always seems at ease, whether muttering asides in the playful “Cabaret,” pleading in falsetto during “Take Back the Night” or playing it fragile in “Pair of Wings.”
He and Timbaland aren’t satisfied just to create songs -- they want to make musical events. Many of the tracks are outfitted with lush orchestration and extended codas that at their best suggest a type of progressive pop or neo-soul music, but just as often come off as indulgent and tedious. At times it feels as though they’re just showing off without really serving the song, as “True Blood” drags to a close with a moody soundscape, “Amnesia” drifts through seven mostly unnecessary minutes, and “Only When I Walk Away” loses momentum but keeps plodding along.
Artistic ambition is a wonderful attribute, but so is the ability to self-edit, and it’s in short supply. There’s a snappy single album of sharp pop music tucked inside the two “20/20 Experience” bookends, but it’ll take listeners some work to find it.