make some space for the godawful justin timberlake album
Fun times in post-internet malaise: The big-pop album is not out for another week, in fact, it’s entombed in a mini-USB under Fort Knox, so while you wait, here’s all the disqualifying backlash strung together in a Twitter moment. Excited for Reputation? The roll-out’s been a misread of third-wave feminism. Taylor’s canceled. Younger Now sounds… interesting? Unexamined whiteness returns to its roots. Boycott it. No joke, the night before the Justin Timberlake album even dropped, Pitchfork had already put up a feature telling its readers not to listen to it. If you aren’t in the business of writing about music, and are under no obligation to clothe your family with hot-takes, you might wonder why your reaction is so important that the media would leave you untrusted with it.
Thankfully, bad art will always be bad art; the first transgression, the one everyone will register, will likely be aesthetic, and hence, unavoidable. That is, a wackass lead single— always a welcome democratization. In recent memory, the unsettling hostage duress code of Weezer’s “Feels like Summer,” the clueless apologia of Eminem’s “Untouchable,” and the overstuffed-to-unfinished chorus bars of Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm” (sorry, I mean “DANCEDANCEDANC-”) have all detonated as equal opportunity landmines, making cheerfully old-fashioned dive bombs on plebeian ear-buds before cultural curators were given the chance to contextualize the little bastards away.
That relationship—direct between a musician and a listener—shouldn’t come only once an album cycle. After all, pop stars, in brand and physicality, carry a closer association with their art than anyone else, and much of our delight in listening to pop music therefore comes in measuring their totemic, larger-than-life standing in mass culture. But if we want to keep that culture alive we have to keep listening to the albums released, and the packaged dismissals we see during pre-release cycles risk minimizing such a healthy plurality. So it was that the windswept, barren slipstream between January and February brought us an album rollout that was widely dismissed before any consumer had heard more than a single track: Justin Timberlake’s aforementioned Man of the Woods. Don’t be dissuaded—the album is quite dreadful. But it’s also dreadful in ways that are exciting to investigate, nourishing to consider, and more nuanced than the anti-hype would suggest.
For Man of the Woods, the writing on the wall came early, and it may very well have consisted entirely of that absurd album title. That, as well as the equally absurd way it was announced, via an earnest video that dipped future-sex JT into scenes of unexpected and ill-fitting rural machismo. This was to be… country music? The narrative snapped into place with the release of the first single, an amusingly industrial Detroit funk riff called “Filthy” (when all one had was a tracklist, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was about rolling around in the mud with some pigs). Namely, Timberlake was skipping blithely between black and white musical spheres, retaining the former only inasmuch as it lent this new “rootsier” endeavor crossover appeal, and getting away with it under a patina of goyish caucasian privilege. Which, I mean, yes, that’s true, good job, but also have you heard Madonna’s Music? The album where she took a break from swiping Bowery Disco to put on a cowboy hat and ask us if we “liked to boogie woogie?” Careers built upon an appropriation of black culture have unthinkingly diverted back to a foundational whiteness before, and they will again. That sucks, but preemptively declaring Man of the Woods the “poster record” for racial second-use only serves to shroud the album’s more singular and intriguing awfulness—which, in retrospect, was also predicted in its announcement.
Because if your vested interest in Justin Timberlake extends beyond his vulnerability to woke takedowns, then you know the leading facet of his career to date has been his incredible insincerity. That is, as a performer. I’m sure JT is a hell of a nice guy (or whatever), but like a lot of early 2000s pop dinosaurs, he rarely comes on like he believes any of the words he’s singing. Whereas his contemporaries often possessed a kitschy self-awareness of this fact (recall that Britney Spears played a fembot in the third Austin Powers), Timberlake’s frequent aspirations toward good taste and respectability saw him working with increasingly forward-thinking productions (from Timbaland, The Neptunes, etc) whose robotic efficiency matched the hollow pastiche of his voice. So a stripped back country album about who Timberlake is? Surely Man of The Woods was to be the final chapter in the violent and exciting death throes of the pop-culture 2000s?
Indeed, Man of the Woods is the sound of Timberlake’s insincerity catching up with him, years of pretty boy coasting changed overnight into midlife panic. Taken as a whole, the album satisfies as a karmic deep-dive into toxic male insecurity—inevitable, horrific, and blissfully unintentional—with the rugged iconography functioning as the sad and desperate counterpoint. Just look at the lyrics. “Supplies” creates a last man and woman on earth scenario wherein JT’s genitalia (his “supli-ie-ie-s,” as it were) are the only hope for the latter’s salvation. “Say Something,” meanwhile, pressures him for a response to past “transgressions,” before the superstar shrewdly decides in the outro that “sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.” In “The Hard Stuff,” we learn that it’s the crappy, hard-won relationships that ultimately mean the most, but Timberlake still makes sure to preemptively secure a guarantee from his loved one that she’ll “forgive the things in this life that I have to learn” anyway. And sitting at the center, a smoking gun—a spoken word interlude wherein Jessica Biel directly equates her sense of womanhood with her belonging to Timberlake, to her being “his.” Whether Biel actually wrote and internalized those lines is beside the point. Because it’s an element the artist has incorporated into his art, we’re here to analyze its intention, and the ultimate takeaway is that this is Timberlake constructing scenarios where he can appear a substantial, sincere person.
Naturally, his desperation is reflected in the record’s sounds, which are wonderfully flailing and rudderless. Simply going through the tracklist once is a dizzying sensation, with much of the second half blending together—an undifferentiated blur of digital acoustics spooling out over rubbery, tap pad percussion. For comparison, imagine six straight tracks of “Shape of You.” Though that isn’t to suggest the record is front-loaded, either. Coffee-shop playlist entrant “Morning Light” is barely there, seemingly built entirely around handclaps and sustained syllables (“youuuuu,” “dieeeeee”), and “Wave” is a wholesome call-and-response that never generates enough interest to imagine that anyone might bother learning the lyrics. It’s a tacky, garish listen, but it becomes extremely reassuring when measured up against the worrying trends of our current moment (such as, I don’t know, hollow nostalgia acts bogarting undeserved Grammys). Flashy mimics are people too. One day they will desire more than they have, they will reach uncertainly for authenticity, and it will destroy their back-catalog. We’ll look back on Futuresex/Lovesounds, and all we’ll remember is that Beyonce’s B’Day came out a week earlier. Listen to this album, and say goodbye to 2000s UB40.