“If you know what’s good!”
So goes the opening line to Justin Timberlake‘s single “Filthy”, the first off his upcoming album Man In The Woods and his first since the dull yet catchy hit “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”. There was a time when no one knew what was good more than JT. As a member of *NSYNC Timberlake helped craft some of our most beloved boyband guilty pleasures before going solo, and launching a career that remains the goal for pop musicians hoping to reinvent themselves. Justified remains a fresh and vibrant pop album more than 15 years since its release and his follow up, 2006’s Futuresex / Lovesounds, is maybe the most inventive and progressive pop record released since the turn of the millenium. And if 2013’s The 20/20 Experience was a regression, it was into confident, assured songwriting, a return from a long break from music that could hardly be described as disappointing. But that’s not the full story.
If only Timberlake had taken another extended hiatus, rather than quickly releasing 20/20 Experience Part 2, an album of such bloat that it dispelled any notions of impeachable judgement. Minus “Drink You Away”, there isn’t any track off this album that rises above the level of ‘deservedly cut from 20/20 Part 1‘. Coupled with the controversy surrounding lead single “Take Back The Night” (don’t name your song about a good night out after a sexual violence prevention organisation) all that Part 2 achieved was to crush the image of Timberlake as a pop behemoth. He was a man hopelessly out of touch, and out of ideas. That image, rather than the one of a pop legend, has been much harder to shake.
The pop landscape is drastically different from five years ago. Timberlake is an ageing man in a young person’s game, someone who has proudly never chased trends but his level and brand of fame is ill suited to the modern realities of pop stardom. For the most part, ‘pop stardom’ doesn’t really exist anymore. There isn’t any one person who holds that much of a grip over the whole industry the way Timberlake once had. Albums are no longer events anymore, not even for someone like Drake. Timberlake is astute enough to know this hence his constant reinvention of himself. If nothing else 20/20 was a deliberate shift into a more refined, adult orientated sound, one that was initially fruitful. Timberlake likely hopes to have the same result with Man Of The Woods, a move into a less commercial sound, that will look to sell him as something more ‘authentic’ than a pop star.
But do me a favour and watch these promo videos. It won’t take long, just a few minutes. It’ll be worth your time. I’ll meet you down below.
DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A MAN WHO KNOWS WHAT THE HELL HE IS DOING?
We’ve only actually heard two songs from the album itself and the guy is undeniably talented and ambitious. The likelihood is that Man Of The Woods will have some jams. There’s only one definite in this whole story and it is this: Nothing this year will be jam packed with more out-and-out comedy than these album promos. They’re hopelessly goofy and tone deaf, the type of thing one can only make when they’re so isolated in their stardom that good judgement has left the building. What, I repeat, what the hell was Timberlake thinking?
What screams ‘returning to your roots’ more than dancing around a campfire in your (presumably) five thousand dollar leather jacket? Are we supposed to be amazed at the sight of “Sexyback” Timberlake running through some crops or wading through some water? And why follow this promise of country rooted album with “Filthy” and “Supplies”, songs that exhibit none of the qualities that you are selling your record on? What the hell does ‘bring the outside in’ mean anyway? Will Timberlake now wander the woods like Hilary Clinton and perform sets with an acoustic guitar in tow? Fair enough he wants to show the inspiration for how the album sounds but that has, as he says, ‘never been done before’.
Beyonce’s Lemonade did it. All albums will present their inspiration to listeners. That’s what albums do.
None of that compares to the magnum opus of that final clip though. It might be the greatest sketch ever written. JT in a Marvin Gaye beanie talking about ‘modern Americana with 808’s’ and laughing like a man that’s been sipping on some of that Tom Cruise Scientology kool-aid. He’s talking about the sounds of heritage, at a time when white people using that kind of terminology has never been more problematic. It’s almost impossible to ignore how problematic that is, and why you should avoid it. He and Pharrell constantly pat each on the back for making a country album, like country is a genre that they’ve invented. I hate to break it to them, but country music is already a thing. There’s a lot of it out there. Just because you’ve just discovered it doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t know about it. At least Timbaland looks embarrassed.
This series of promotional videos is most reminiscent of Jay Z’s trailer for his flop Magna Carta Holy Grail, a clip that likewise brought together a collection of legends for a self-indulgent testament to how tasteless they had all become. These are fascinating documents of what success and wealth can do to ones perception of reality, how myopic a person’s tools of perception can become. There’s a weird joy in watching a room of ageing stars lose their minds over objectively bad music. The cognitive dissonance is stunning, reminiscent of the great Tom Scharpling’s (The Best Show) description of the Kanye West and Jay Z album Watch The Throne: “Everybody is losing their jobs and these two dimwits do an album where all they do is talk about everything they own.” Nothing seems more fitting as I witness the Timberlake album roll out. What a bozo.
The bombastic nature of Timberlake’s promotional efforts are horribly outdated, but this is a musical problem as much as it is a business one. Some people have found kind things to say about lead single “Filthy” but, as much as I strain, I can only see a try-hard retread of work already released. His latest single “Supplies” is even worse, a complete mess with an accompanying video – a strong addition to the embarrassing ‘white artist tries to be woke’ hall of fame. Neither serve up the slice of ‘Americana’ Timberlake has been promising for his upcoming album, a worrying sign of a clear musical identity crisis.
Timberlake revolutionised pop in the ‘00s with the help of The Neptunes and Timbaland, but is it surprising that after 15 years of collaboration the resulting music has come to sound tired and predictable? What could these guys possibly cook up at this stage in their careers that could surprise us? Timberlake seems rooted in the concept of reinvention, yet is unwilling to change up his personnel to make that transformation feasible. If you want to make a country album then you should do that. Get some country songwriters in, get producers who suit that kind of songwriting to work on those songs. What the hell are you blowing up Pharrell and Timbaland for on an album on which you’re trying to go all Chris Stapleton?
Could Timberlake really achieve what he once did early in his career? Not likely. But who knows what he might be capable of if he hooked up with the right set of talent. Even if it didn’t work, it would just be refreshing to see the guy go for something different. Make no mistake about it, Timberlake is still a huge name. He could work with whoever he wanted. Imagine a Timberlake album produced by some young, hungry talent. What could Kaytranada do with him? Or Kevin Parker? How about James Murphy for a more adult sound? Hell, call up Mura Masa. Why not? The Timberlake these producers could give us are all ones I’d like to see. This current iteration just isn’t doing it for me.