Justin Timberlake has built his entire career on doing what you’re not supposed to do. You’re not supposed to leave the highly-profitable boy band, you’re not supposed to make music mainly dominated by a culture that’s not your own, you’re not supposed to make pop songs over six minutes long, you’re not supposed to expose Janet Jackson’s bare breast to a Super Bowl audience and then come back, and yet, Timberlake has done all that and more.
On songs like “Cry Me a River,” one of his biggest hits, Timberlake and Timbaland include some of the oddest sound effects into the composition, and it’s these beat-box and sampled sounds, such as those on “My Love” and “Tunnel Vision,” that have defined his career. Heard individually, these sounds would seemingly have never been imagined to come together so perfectly, and yet they do on “Cry Me a River,” and all throughout Timberlake’s discography.
On Man of the Woods, a record still built on that same idea, Timberlake finally answers what happens when all the crazy sounds actually don’t work together at all. What if “Sexy Back” went just a little too far? We get “Filthy.” What if the guitars from “Like I Love You (feat. Clipse)” didn’t fit with Timberlake’s future-forward pop-rap mix? We get “Wave.” What if Timberlake had chosen to continue to make records post-Justified with Pharrell Williams and not Timbaland? We get more “Señorita” than “Cry Me a River”—we get tracks like “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Supplies.”
When he released the first single and opening track “Filthy,” I asked what could have possibly driven Justin Timberlake to write a song like this? I called it “confusing sound vomit.” I compared it to the end of the world rave scene from The Matrix: Reloaded. I questioned: “what thirty-six year-old man sitting in the woods with his wife and toddler is artistically writing songs with the lyrics ‘what you gonna do with all that meat?/cookin’ up a mean servin’?” Even after hearing all of Man of the Woods, I still don’t understand what it has anything to do with his wife, his son, or his roots.
Right before the album’s release, he took to Instagram to clarify that he never intended Man of the Woods to be a country record (despite the clearly marketed video advertisements), and that the “Modern Americana with 808s” approach was inspired by his son Silas, who’s name apparently means “of the Woods.” “The album is named after my son,” Timberlake said, “Stop telling me I’m making a country album.” Justin, if your son is the Man of the Woods, then why are you the Man of the Woods?
With horrible lyrics such as comparing his wife’s orgasm to faucets, songs like “Wave” that monotonously drag on, a seemingly Chance the Rapper-esque intro to “Midnight Summer Jam” before Pharrell’s N.E.R.D. impulses take over, songs that seem stuck on the Trolls soundtrack with “Can’t Stop the Feeling” like “Sauce” and the title-track, the most cringe worthy interlude of all time in which Jessica Biel tries to make wearing Justin’s ripped-up t-shirt something deep and emotional, and five songs in a row that seem like the end to an album that relentlessly refuses to cease, Man of the Woods is undeniably Timberlake’s first failure of a record. In a world where nothing seems to make sense any more, Timberlake files in line.
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