But that was before the record sold more than 2 million copies, more than any other this year, and before Timberlake played a string of sold-out stadium shows with Jay Z. And it was before Timberlake reenergized his loyal subjects by revealing that "20/20" was only the first half of a two-part project — yet another reason he fairly proclaimed himself "the king" onstage at this month's iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas.
You can hear His Majesty exercising that authority on "The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2," a 12-song sequel due Monday that comes on stronger than its ingratiating predecessor.
Where the initial "20/20" carried a suave, gentlemanly vibe — one reflected in the classic tuxedos Timberlake wore during appearances on the Grammy Awards, "Saturday Night Live" and in at least one Target commercial — the new set aims for something darker and dirtier.
Performing last week outdoors on Hollywood Boulevard (in a concert arranged for "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the singer didn't even bother with a tie.
"Can we discuss how fast you just got undressed?" Timberlake asks a lover in "Cabaret," a percolating bedroom jam that depicts sex as a form of at-home theater. Over sampled wolf howls in the itchy "True Blood," he tips his porkpie hat to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" with an extended babe-as-demon metaphor: "Her skin was white, so white/ Look like it had no expiration date."
Later, he likens a woman to a championship boxer in "TKO," only to switch to a stone-cold killer for "Murder"; neither seems like the type given to chewing "Strawberry Bubblegum," as one comparatively demure song from the first "20/20" was titled.
Timberlake isn't the only one trying to sharpen his edge. His producing partner Timbaland's beats are weirder and more playful than they were last time, as in the cyborg-funk opener, "Gimme What I Don't Know (I Want)," and especially "Murder," a bhangra-inflected track that echoes his groundbreaking work in "Get Ur Freak On" by Missy Elliott.
"Take Back the Night," the disc's handsome but inert lead single, is an exception. And, as on Part 1, some songs go on for too long — including "Amnesia," whose beginning you may well have forgotten by the time you finally get to the end.
But those longueurs are offset by "Drink You Away," a potent electro-blues cut, and by Drake's frisky guest verse in "Cabaret," where the rapper takes the sex talk to a level that Timberlake the boy-band veteran still can't. (Jay Z appears on "2 of 2" as well, musing on Yoko Ono's feminine wiles in "Murder.")
Beyond the muscle-flexing it seems to represent, Timberlake's bluster might be his solution to the problem of Robin Thicke, whose ascent over the summer with the proudly raunchy "Blurred Lines" threatened to make Timberlake look like a genteel (pocket) square.
"I burn it down all the way," he yowls in "Only When I Walk Away," doing his best to start a fire. "Burn it down till there ain't no more."
Yet for all his newfound machismo, Timberlake — who heads out on tour again next month — is actually most convincing here at his softest, reaching back in a handful of songs to before the first "20/20 Experience."
"Not a Bad Thing" is a dewy, blue-eyed soul number that sounds like it could've come from the final 'N Sync album, when Timberlake was discovering the emotional possibilities of his singing. "You Got It On" layers Smokey Robinson-style falsetto over a shimmering quiet-storm groove.
And "Pair of Wings," an unlisted acoustic track, closes the disc with a lovely (and unexpected) flash of modesty: "I know I can't save you from the troubles of the world," Timberlake sings in a near-whisper. "But if I could I'd fly you away on a big old pair of wings."
Perhaps the sign of true power is knowing when not to use it.
"The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2"
Three stars (out of four)