When it was announced back in October that Justin Timberlake would be performing a short concert bookended by some football game that some people are into, it was safe to assume that JT would be dropping his fifth solo album around the time of this performance. Man of the Woods was released this past Friday. A tour kicks off in March with a little gig called the Super Bowl Halftime Show serving as the ultimate promotional gig.
Justin Timberlake is a jack-of-all-trades, and he proved this during his halftime performance. He kicked things off with his new single “Filthy.” Then took us on a musical trip down musical memory lane with hits like “Rock Your Body”, Cry Me A River”, “SexyBack”, “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors.” He effortlessly used other hits like “Señorita” and “My Love” to transition between songs during the medley performance. He topped it all off with an uplifting version of “Can’t Stop The Feeling”. He also paid tribute to one of his biggest influences, the late Prince with a mash-up of “Until The End Of Time” and “I Would Die For You” (which did not include the much Tweeted about controversial hologram). And there were some pretty slick dance routines.
In the months leading up to Super Bowl LII, critics and fans debated whether JT has lost his cool. On January 2, Timberlake uploaded a teaser for the album mentioning that his son, wife and his southern roots set to a rustic backdrop of campfires, and mountains all wrapped in flannel. Three days later, the first single from Man of the Woods, “Filthy” was released. Aside from the song’s ethereal outro, it did not really present a man of the woods, but it did revisit Futuresex/Lovesounds (including a futuristic video with robots). “Filthy” has been referred to as a “palette cleanser.”
The Internet’s response to the “comeback single” has been divisive. Some media outlets like Noisey went on to proclaim that Justin Timberlake is “officially uncool now.” They noted a Tweet he made in support of Jesse William’s speech at the 2016 BET Awards. The controversial fallout of the Tweet was seen by some as an example of the Internet laying heavy on extreme political correctness.
After repeated listens, I could hear Timberlake’s attempt to mix some “modern Americana with 808s” by mixing the futuristic and industrial beats of producer Timbaland with a more organic and “live” feel. The result? A genre-bending composition that few other pop stars are capable.
Noisey also referenced Timberlake’s 2016 smash-hit single from the Trolls soundtrack “Can’t Stop the Feeling” as more evidence that he is no longer cool. They called it “a song no one wanted or needed in their lives” and wondered “[w]hat happened to the slick dance routines?”
It is unclear what Noisey considers to be “slick dance routines,” or if they will be pleased with the ones during the halftime show, but the music video for “Can’t Stop the Feeling” did feature a dance routine that fit the theme of the song. It became the top-selling single of 2016– not bad for a song that no one seemed to need or want in their lives. (Timberlake also contributed a number of other songs to the Trolls soundtrack, including a collaboration with Gwen Stefani and a cover of Earth Wind and Fire’s “December,” which this writer can confirm was a big hit amongst himself and his nieces).
Flare was even harsher, calling the Man of the Woods artwork and inspiration a “return to whiteness” and “super problematic”. They said “after years of borrowing from Black culture— it *looks* like JT is branding himself as white again.” They made a swift judgment on the aesthetic of the album and piled on assumptions.
In the spring of 2016, Timberlake confirmed he was working on a new album. In an interview with Carson Daly, the singer said “[w]here I grew up in America has a lot of influence… [g]rowing up in Tennessee—very central of the country—Memphis is known as being the birthplace of rock and roll, but also the home of the blues, but Nashville’s right down the street so there’s a lot of country music.” From then on it was rumoured that Timberlake was going “country,” especially when news of collaborations with country stars Keith Urban and Chris Stapleton surfaced. (Despite other reports that he had tapped long-time collaborators Timbaland and The Neptunes for production).
Timberlake never said he was going country, or “white” as Flare asserted. He just said he wanted to explore the rock, blues and country influences of his Tennessee roots and create something new. This also isn’t the first time that Timberlake has explored other genres. The second half of Man of the Woods could fit into his soundtrack for the film Inside Llewyn Davis about a folk singer at a crossroads. U2 had a similar problem in 1997 when it was revealed that they were working with dance producers and DJs on their album Pop. Critics assumed the band was making a dance record, instead of incorporating elements of the genre into their signature sound which ultimately affected the album’s reception.
The truth is Man of the Woods is more about a man being at peace and at home with his family than it is about being country. The lyrics delve into relationships and fatherhood. Plus, Timberlake has also stated that Silas, the name of his son, means “man of the woods.”
As mentioned earlier, “Filthy” sounded like a familiar Timberlake/Timbaland collaboration, “Supplies” and “Morning Light” (featuring Alicia Keys) could have fit on any one of the singer’s previous albums. The “southern roots” sound can also be heard on tracks like “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Sauce,” but they also conjure up memories of older Timberlake songs like “Let the Groove Get In” and the previously mentioned cover of “September.” Even the album’s title track, which bends more towards the country/pop/folk side of things is a natural progression from “Can’t Stop the Feeling”.
While Man of the Woods has a clear and innovative idea, it doesn’t always translate well and certainly won’t be considered Timberlake’s best effort. (That accolade still belongs to FutureSex/Lovesounds which is arguably one of the greatest albums of the noughties). Nevertheless, Timberlake should still be celebrated as a talented and innovative artist who is willing to take risks.
Timberlake is as cool and effortless as ever, being able to explore numerous sounds and genres like a musical chameleon. He is likable and charming and has proven his comedic acting chops with his numerous appearances on Saturday Night Live and on the Tonight Show sketches with Jimmy Fallon, as well as in acting roles his cameo in the underrated film Popstar: Never Stop Stopping.
On a personal note, Justin Timberlake is an artist that helped shape my formative years. If I had any musical talent whatsoever (which I do not) and was to ever pursue a career as a musician, he would be just as big an influence as U2 would be on the type of sound I would pursue. When I was in high school, my peers were heavily influenced by the music of the 60’s and 70’s, wearing their hair long and sporting band t-shirts while I identified more with Timberlake’s style and sound. (At the risk of embarrassing myself, my first foray into facial hair was to badly copy the “chin fuzz” JT sported in the “Cry Me A River” video.”)
Perhaps the best way to sum up what has become a defense of Justin Timberlake is to quote a Facebook response to another scathing article from Vice, which read: “[Justin Timberlake has] stated more than once that the name Silas (his son) means ‘man of the woods’.” The post went on to say, “Justin Timberlake has always given us a little bit of everything and that’s why those who love him love him.” That in my books makes Justin Timberlake pretty damn cool.
By Kristopher Smith
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik