Forget the guy on the Dos Equis commercials. These days, Justin Timberlake is the world’s most interesting man.
On Tuesday, when the numbers come in and the dust has settled, it’s very likely that Timberlake will be awarded his second No. 1 album of 2013. Released last Monday – a day earlier than the industry standard Tuesday drop date in order to make the deadline for Grammy eligibility – “The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2” will have sold in excess of 300,000 copies by the end of its first week. Part one of the “20/20 Experience” deal hit the streets in March, and has now sold more than 2 million copies, making it the highest selling release of 2013.
This second No. 1 within the same 12-month period is another feather in Timberlake’s already crowded cap. In the weeks leading up to the release of the first “20/20 Experience,” any music industry-related activity – awards shows, prime-time appearance, late-night TV gig – has come across as an extended advertisement for Timberlake. (Who can forget the 20 minutes allotted to JT at the Grammy Awards or the MTV Video Music Awards show lovefest? Is there another contemporary artist you can imagine getting that kind of treatment? I didn’t think so.)
His Feb. 22 concert at First Niagara Center sold out in five minutes. Add Timberlake’s film appearances – the new “Runner Runner,” the upcoming Coen Brothers’ flick “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Social Network,” and my colleague Jeff Simon’s pick for JT’s best role, “Alpha Dog,” among them – and the guy seems to be everywhere at once. It almost feels like he’s being forced down our throats. The fact that he comes across as self-effacing, humble, intelligent, funny and apparently endlessly charming – in the whole “the girls want to be with him and the guys want to be him” manner – has made this a bit easier to swallow.
But swallow we must, or else turn off the TV, steer clear of the movie houses, and avoid social media like the plague some have suggested it may be.
One just can’t help wondering if this whole thing is an act. In the days of dwindling record sales, arena tours consistently plagued by less-than-full houses, and a “here today, gone later today” ethic dictating the shelf life of most artists, Timberlake seems to be living above the law. Could a massive pop star with a thriving movie career also be a genuinely decent human being? Doesn’t anyone have any dirt on this guy?
Apparently not. And it’s this fact that sits squarely at the heart of Timberlake’s generation-jumping appeal. He’s naughty enough to hold our attention within the sex-obsessed contemporary pop scene – the new album in fact packs in several cheesy heavy-breathers boasting absurd sexual double-entendres of the sort that even Robin Thicke might stumble over – and yet he’s nice enough to appeal to older listeners, too. (The whole strutting around in a tuxedo singing “Suit & Tie” presented Timberlake as a hipper, more talented Michael Bublé, or perhaps Harry Connick Jr. on a hip-hop bender.)
When we get right down to the music, what do we find? Timberlake is a talented singer. He’s soulful, he phrases very well, he knows how to pace a song, and he also knows how to sell sexuality without coming across as a porn star moonlighting in the pop world. (Yes, I’m looking at you Drake! And you too, Kendrick Lamar! And R Kelly, don’t even get me started!) This makes him appear both hot and safe. Elvis and Fabian in one, as it were.
On the first installment of “The 20/20 Experience,” Timberlake very astutely reveled in ’70s soul tropes much of the time, and then got all Radiohead with the album’s final song, “Mirrors.” This spoke of an open-minded approach to music, and suggested that Timberlake was a hip dude who listened to far more than hip-hop, Michael Jackson and boy bands. “20/20 Experience” was so diverse and interesting that it came across as a masterpiece. Comparisons to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo were being thrown around like nobody’s business, but really, this was rather alarming – Timberlake is not an artist of similar depth to any of them in terms of chops, soulfulness or songwriting.
Part of JT’s magic can be pinpointed to his immediate surroundings; in a sea filled with the likes of Miley Cyrus, Drake, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, he stands out as a sturdy island. Timberlake is very good, and his pop qualifies as genuine art. But is he that good? Or have we all simply swallowed the hype-dosed Kool-Aid?
“20/20 Experience: 2 of 2” suggests we may have. The album offers a far less interesting and compelling journey than did its predecessor. That’s principally because no matter how Timberlake has already (charmingly, of course) tried to frame it while making the marathon-esque promotional rounds, the album sounds exactly like what it is – a plate of warmed-up leftovers from the same recording sessions that gave us the first volume of “The 20/20 Experience.”
Much of “2 of 2” sounds like self-indulgent twaddle, though at least its danceable (and hummable) self-indulgent twaddle. There are gratuitous cameos from the likes of Drake and Jay-Z. JT even takes a stab at country-pop with “Drink You Away,” a song which no amount of drinking could truly make enjoyable. There are moments that hearken to JT’s ’N Sync boy band-pop days, and others that sound like they could be outtakes from the 2006 release “Futuresex/Lovesounds.” None of it adds up to anything particularly striking.
Will any of this hurt Timberlake? Will overexposure encourage a backlash in the long run? It’s doubtful. Timberlake is, after all, the world’s most interesting man. And in present-day pop, no one else seems particularly qualified to challenge him for the title.