First, the good news: the second installment of Justin Timberlakes 20/20 Experience is better than the first.
The bad news? Thats still not great.
Although Timberlake has managed to rediscover his sense of melody, the pop star still cant shake the feeling of playing catch up, which pervades the dozen tracks here (yes, he blew his original concept 10 tracks on two different LPs equaling 20 total; hence, The 20/20 Experience for reasons that arent entirely clear).
Instead of trying to elbow Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean or Robin Thicke out of the way, as he did on Experience part one, now Timberlake has decided to shamelessly ape Michael Jackson, a tack hes employed his entire career, but has always been better about hiding.
At this point, its probably worth pointing out that the first half of Experience is the years bestselling album to date, having moved more than 2 million copies, as of Sept. 1.
That success can be attributed, in part, to the anthemic single Mirrors, Experience part ones only worthwhile cut, as well as Timberlakes dogged promotional schedule, which found him touring America with Jay-Z and popping up on every awards show or talk show that would have him.
In other words, the brand is healthy, even if the ostensible reason for its being the music is on creative life support.
Perhaps Timberlake is just fine with being an empty suit, but its a surprising choice, given how innovative and engaging his records were a half-decade ago.
There are moments, however fleeting, when The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 sparks to life, most notably Drakes guest verse on the otherwise laughable Cabaret, and even Jay-Zs sharp spot on Murder, wherein the rap icon redeems his deadly dull turn on part ones Suit & Tie.
Even the lyrical landmines are somewhat forgivable I think shes got that true blood/Every time youre round I can smell it in you, intones Timberlake on the nine-and-a-half minute (!) Thriller rip-off True Blood, simultaneously evoking chuckles and nausea because the record, for all of its considerable faults, does have a forward momentum wholly absent on 20/20 Experience part one.
But like its antecedent, the ghosts of others lurk in the shadows, making these dozen tracks, again produced by Timbaland and Timberlake, feel desperate and devoid of fresh inspiration.
The nadir arrives early, when Vincent Prices distinct cackle from Thriller is stirred into True Blood, just audible enough to be discerned, but not so forward as to be immediately obvious. Such a tactic suggests not homage, but rather a hopeful, genius-by-association hail Mary.
Timberlakes persistent evocation of Jacksons catalog part twos lead single Take Back the Night could pass for a lazy update of Dont Stop til You Get Enough smacks of someone with enough hubris to say, in so many words, the King is dead; long live the King.
Pop music, broadly speaking, is built upon the permeable boundary between inspiration and outright theft (look no further than this summers kerfuffle over Blurred Lines, where Robin Thicke was all but accused of desecrating Marvin Gayes memory).
The pop stars who thread the needle between the two are those who tend to enjoy somewhat longer, more artistically satisfying careers, although in the modern era, that truism isnt as ironclad as it once was (see: Lady Gaga).
Timberlake was, before his Hollywood detour, one of the rare performers able to assimilate the past and synthesize something new. In the gap between his second and third albums, a small army of like-minded acts rushed in, eager to fill the void.
He cant beat em, he wont join em and the third path try and out-work em has proven only somewhat effective.
So, where does Justin Timberlake go from here?
On tour, where perhaps a better sense of his next steps will be evident. (He comes to American Airlines Center in Dallas on Dec. 4.)
Despite countless listens, its difficult to engage with The 20/20 Experience as anything other than glossy, empty product. At the rate hes going, it wont be long before Timberlake can be considered the same thing.