by ALICE BOLIN
1. Justin Timberlake
It is a prominent feature of my personal #brand that I don’t like music made by boys or boy things in general. As far as boys are concerned, I have historically favored Backstreet Boys: as a tween, when I would receive issues of YM or Teen People featuring their rivals *NSYNC, I would rip the magazines’ covers off.
Still, Justin Timberlake is difficult to hate. He’s a solid musician, a pretty good actor, and an always delightful Saturday Night Live host. In his solo music career, he has shown artistic savvy far exceeding his boy band origins. I had low expectations for Timberlake’s album The 20/20 Experience, which came out in March of this year, considering its boring-ass lead single “Suit and Tie” and the fact that six out of ten of the album’s tracks are over seven minutes long.
But I was won over by The 20/20 Experience’s creative, orchestral arrangements and ecstatic melodies. For my money, “Mirrors” is one of the best radio singles of 2013. Nevertheless, when I heard Timberlake was releasing another album of ten extremely long songs this September, I was all, “uh oh.” The 20/20 Experience was such a critical and commercial success that I wasn’t sure how Timberlake could pull this off twice. And guess what.
He couldn’t. The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 is as hackneyed and lame as the first installment was fresh and interesting. Timberlake is still working with his long-time collaborator Timbaland on 2 of 2, but the lush disco strings of 1 of 2 are replaced by boring, weirdly retro drum machine beats. There are times when 2 of 2 sounds kind of like *NSYNC, which I’m pretty sure Timberlake would take as the world’s worst insult.
Silly metaphors are a hallmark of both installments of The 20/20 Experience — on “Strawberry Bubblegum” off of 1 of 2 he sings (over and over), “Be my strawberry bubblegum… let me love you ‘til I make you pop.” But on 2 of 2, where there is nothing compelling going on musically, the corny lyrics are glaring. “True Blood” is a truly embarrassing track about, yes, vampires: “It’s that demon in me that’s got me screamin’,” Timberlake sings, “Makes me wanna build a coffin for two.”
At times this metaphor mania reminds me of country songwriting — especially on “Drink You Away,” where Timberlake partakes in the venerable tradition of personifying varieties of alcohol. “I can’t drink you away,” he sings. “I’ve tried Jack, I’ve tried Jim, I’ve tried all of their friends.” This can be charming, granted, but so many of the lyrics on 2 of 2 are so bad they’re unforgivable. On his lovemaking jam “Cabaret” he sings, “I got you saying Jesus so much it’s like we’re lying in the manger.” This might be the most profoundly unsexy simile of all time.
2 of 2 closes with the ballad “Pair of Wings,” on which Timberlake acknowledges that he can’t protect his love from pain, but says, “If I could I’d fly you away/On a big old pair of wings.” This is a hidden track, and if you ask me, it wasn’t hidden well enough. It exemplifies 2 of 2’s creative exhaustion — the lazy lyrics, the nondescript melody, the tendency towards the cheesy. The thing is that most artists would be satisfied with releasing one very good (and very long) album in one year, and they should be. If 2 of 2 were released as a bonus disc, I could take the songs at face value, but as a companion to 1 of 2, the comparison is just unfortunate.
In some ways Timberlake’s solo career reminds me of Paul McCartney’s. Both were “the cute one” in their original groups, and they are used to being indulged, which has led to wildly inconsistent creative output — for McCartney, it has meant both the successes of his albums like Band on the Run and Ram and his writing and releasing dozens of tracks that are boring, trite, and bizarre. For Timberlake, it has meant both the success of The 20/20 Experience - 1 of 2 and the disappointment of The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2. If that comparison sounds like way too big a compliment to Timberlake, keep in mind that he was in *NSYNC and Paul McCartney was in, you know, The Beatles — which was a pretty good band, despite being comprised entirely of boys.
“This is nothing for the radio,” Drake sings on “Tuscan Leather,” the first track on his new album, Nothing Was The Same, “but they’ll still play it though.” Drake clearly suffers from the same ambivalence about being a hugely successful pop star as his mentors Jay-Z and Kanye West. West impregnated the most overexposed woman on the planet and then made a scary, angry album about how he hates being a celebrity. On “Moment of Clarity” off The Black Album, Jay-Z says, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be/Lyrically, Talib Kweli,” expressing a weird desire to be a “smart” rapper instead of a gazillionaire. “Who else making rap albums doing numbers like it’s pop?” Drake asks on Nothing Was The Same and I’m like, “Um, Kanye?”
West made it acceptable to rap about growing up suburban and middle class, and Drake took that shit and ran with it. He talks about his bar mitzvah money and his mom driving him to the set of Degrassi in her Acura. People have made fun of him for his track “Started From The Bottom,” since he obviously didn’t have it hard growing up, but that’s the point. “Boys tell stories about the man,” Drake sings on “Started From The Bottom,” “Say I never struggled, wasn’t hungry.” He’s saying that just because you don’t grow up poor, it still isn’t easy to become one of the most successful rappers in the world, which, point taken.
I saw a Tumblr post that was supposedly Drake searching for porn; it was just a gif of someone searching “personality” on PornHub. I had a hearty LOL over it. But Drake’s main contribution to hip hop is that he writes in an honest and self-aware way about relationships. “I got trust issues,” he sings on “All Me.” “I’m the type to have a bullet-proof condom/And still gotta pull out.” Wasn’t that a Girls plot line?
Drake mostly favors fuzzy, sensual, stripped down production like his bro The Weeknd. At times the drum-driven and moody arrangements almost remind me of Phil Collins. Collins and Drake are soul twins in their own way — both make smooth, sexy, catchy music that reveals an unexpectedly intense, insecure, and sad persona behind it. Like Kanye said, “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” Confidence is bankrupt.
On Nothing Was The Same, Drake imitates David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans saying, “Hated it!” in their classic In Living Color sketch “Men On Film.” “The Fresh Prince just had dinner with Tatyana, no lie/All these ‘90s fantasies on my mind,” he sings on “Tuscan Leather.” You don’t need a Buzzfeed list to tell you Drake is a ‘90s kid. I don’t know if Drake is trying to pander to the internet’s nostalgia baiting or it just happened that way.
But those lyrics might give you a sense of why a leaked Drake album caused a Twitter feelings frenzy. 50 Cent had his breakthrough in 2005; Twitter was founded in 2006, and after that, as they say, nothing was the same. On “Own It,” Drake sings, “Next time we fuck/I don’t wanna fuck/I wanna make love.” Drake, I told you, I’m into having sex. I ain’t into making love. So come give me a hug. If you into getting rubbed.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She last wrote in these pages about Bangerz. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.
It was known as Poptober, when Alice Bolin brought you
an insightful look at Miley Cyrus' breakup album
an extensive investigation into Lorde
scathing critiques of Drake and JT
and the month isn't over yet
"Someday Sparrow" - Laura Cantrell (mp3)
"Barely Said A Thing" - Laura Cantrell (mp3)
The new album from Laura Cantrell, No Way There From Here, is out now in the UK and will be released in the U.S. in January 2014.