Justin Timberlake? Nice guy.
If you’d seen him chatting with a gaggle of school kids a few hours before his performance at the White House in April, you’d agree. And not because he answered all of the kiddos’ questions like a mensch (although he did that, too).
It’s because Timberlake helped his fellow panelist — Mavis Staples, the teeny-tiny, septuagenarian soul icon — get settled into a wobbly stool up on the dais in the State Dining Room. Then, without drawing any attention to it, the 32-year-old superstar kept his hand clamped on the back of Staples’ chair, making sure she was sturdy and comfy for the duration of the chat.
Fetch the stone tablets. Justin Timberlake. Nice guy.
Which means there’s not a flicker of schadenfreude to be felt in declaring Timberlake’s new album truly abysmal. Titled “The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2,” it’s the sequel to that 10-song mistake Timberlake issued in March, and it’s another high-gloss slog that’s both glossier and sloggier.
Boasting 12 tracks — one is “hidden” — this new album spoils the symmetrical conceit suggested in its title while simultaneously prolonging our discomfort. Once again, super-producer Timbaland is at the controls, providing ornate pop beats that sound like they were freeze-dried in 2006, when he helped draft Timberlake’s sophomore triumph, “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” And just like on the first “20/20” go-round, most of those backing beats meander past the five-minute mark, giving Timberlake plenty of room to do nothing interesting whatsoever. It feels like being held hostage at a party that ended last weekend.
With no silver lining to point out, it’s a quick trip to the bottom — and it arrives with the album’s second track, “True Blood,” a chattering dance track named after the HBO vampire drama that inexplicably dawdles along for nine bloody minutes. Timberlake’s fealty to Michael Jackson has always felt artful and shrewd but here, his answer to “Thriller” is deeply unthrilling. (And enough with the “Thriller” homages, anyway. It isn’t even one of Jackson’s five best songs. If you’re not going to eclipse Kanye West’s “Monster,” don’t bother playing this game.)
Nothing on the second installment of “20/20” sinks lower than that, but nothing fares much better. There’s watery disco (“Take Back the Night”), mawkish balladry (“Not a Bad Thing”) and rock songs that merely threaten to rock (“Drink You Away,” “Only When I Walk Away”).
The parallel bummer surfaced through these two albums is the descent of Timbaland, who seems to have shrunken into a surreal imitation of himself. Ten years ago, he was the most innovative producer in pop music, torquing his hyper-rhythmic alien language into hits of various shapes. Now, his beats feel boilerplate and bland, scrubbed of their mystery and personality. (It hurts to type that.)
Should Timberlake recruit a new collaborator, please let it be a lyricist. Both “20/20” albums have made the singer’s Achilles’ heel throb in new ways. He’s an Elton John in need of a Bernie Taupin, a Burt Bacharach desperate for a Hal David. And while his lothario babble has never jumped off the lyric sheet on its own accord, his lyrics have recently skidded from lazy to sloppy. The freaky nativity scene of “Cabaret” provides the album’s most glaring phrase: “I got you saying ‘Jesus’ so much, it’s like we’re laying in the manger.”
If anything, the titular refrain of “Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)” should leave listeners pining for some reciprocity. In that familiar falsetto, over a familiar rhythm, Timberlake posits himself as “the gentleman that your mama would love.” Then, he launches into the refrain, nudging his lover to break out of her usual bedroom routine, hoping they’ll awaken latent desires.
Music works the same way — but that’s a truth Timberlake has seemingly abandoned. His first “20/20 Experience” album already stands as the highest-selling release of 2013, having sold more than two million copies. So why bother winning the future? In the present, nice guys apparently finish first.