The first installment of this two-part release made all kinds of ‘Best Albums of the Year/Decade’ lists, and there’s a reason for that. This disc features some of the smoothest and lushest retro-R&B of the year, and remember that 2013 was the definitive year of the decade in terms of retro-R&B. Imagine if Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson was backed by Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra…that’s seriously what this album sounds like.
From irresistibly dynamic Funk like “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Let the Groove Get In” to flawlessly seductive love jams like “Suit and Tie” and “Pusher Love Girl” and exquisitely sensual ballads like “Mirrors”, this is some of the best R&B music of the decade. The final track, “Blue Ocean Floor”, is almost Ambient in its atmospheric richness of sound. The third single, “Tunnel Vision”, may not have been the best choice for a single (there were plenty of better songs that didn’t get released), but if it’s the weakest thing on the album, then the album’s doing pretty good, because it’s still a pretty solid song.
Unfortunately, the second disc (billed as The 20/20 Experience—2 of 2) is a far more uneven collection of songs. This is partly because, while both discs are heavily inspired by Michael Jackson, the first installment drew largely on Jackson’s early period, whereas this disc is based more on his post-Thriller work, which is a much less felicitous fit for Timberlake’s style.
There are two gems on the second disc…the silky-smooth ballad “Not a Bad Thing” and “Drink You Away”, which is easily the greatest Country drinking song of 2013 even if it came from a Pop-R&B artist. And a few of the other songs, such as the lead single “Take Back the Night” or “Cabaret” (which features an atypically rapid-fire guest verse from Drake), are at least decent, if nowhere near the level of the songs on the first disc. But items like the obnoxious second single “TKO”, the oversexualized “Give Me What I Don’t Know (I Want)”, or the decisively horrible “Only When I Walk Away” are just flat-out unpleasant.
And even the first disc, for all its glories, suffers from one rather large flaw. Do you know the song “Doctor Jimmy” from the Who’s Quadrophenia album…the one that starts out as a highlight, but then spends over four minutes rambling and repeating itself after it’s essentially finished? Well, imagine a whole album of that. The songs are all wonderful for the first three or four minutes, but the majority of them are seven or eight minutes long, and therein lies the problem.
There’s nothing wrong with writing eight-minute songs if you can actually sustain them, but these songs are essentially over by the three- or four-minute mark, and just stretch themselves out to a long running time by using endless repetition or pointless filler phrases. This problem is even more pronounced on the second disc, where most of the songs aren’t very good to begin with, and become almost unbearable by the time they actually end.
As a result, in spite of the sublime quality of the songs, even making it all the way through the first part of this set requires a considerable amount of patience. I’d argue that the first disc is still worth hearing, but be prepared for flashes of sublime excellence separated by a fair amount of dead air, because that’s what you’re going to get. And I can’t really in good conscience recommend the second disc…the two best songs on it were released as singles anyway, so if you’ve heard them, you’ve heard all you need to hear of that album.
I get why the first part of this collection was so acclaimed at the time, and I’m not trying to dismiss it…it still definitely qualifies as a masterpiece. But it would have been an even greater masterpiece if Timberlake and his longtime producer Timbaland had put a little more effort into being concise and focused instead of artificially stretching out the songs in some attempt to emulate the extended dance jams of classic Funk and Disco. Those songs were lengthy for a reason that no longer applies in the digital era…the desire to keep people dancing for as long as possible without having to interrupt them by changing the record. There’s really no reason for music of this kind to be this long-winded in the modern era, and Timberlake and Timbaland, for all their obvious talent, clearly aren’t capable of maintaining the audience’s interest for that long anyway, so they would have been wiser not to try.