Justin Timberlake – Man of the Woods
Genre: Pop, R&B
As one of the biggest and most recognizable pop stars of this generation, Justin Timberlake has consistently reinvented his sound with each album, making for both commercial and general success, most of the time. Justified was a funky, soulful step away from the teen pop days of *NSYNC; FutureSex/LoveSounds was an innovative electro-pop record that was also one of the best records of the latter part of the 2000s; The 20/20 Experience was a smooth, classy collection of long soul numbers; and The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 was a step towards hip-hop that ultimately missed more often than it hit. So when Timberlake announced that he was moving forward yet again with Man of the Woods, there was reason for both skepticism and intrigue. Described prior to release as “modern Americana with 808s”, the album’s three singles were all completely different from each other. “Filthy” was a glitchy, futuristic electro-pop jam straight from the days of FutureSex/LoveSounds; “Supplies” was an atrocious attempt at that “modern Americana with 808s”; and “Say Something” was a modern country-pop duet with Chris Stapleton that was made to be heard live.
Aside from “Supplies”, the singles showed promising potential for the album. The album’s only producers are Timbaland and Danja, who have produced the majority of Timberlake’s work of his whole career, and his first work with The Neptunes since Justified. But whatever reinventing was intended on Man of the Woods is lost in a boring, overlong mess of ideas clashed together. Over 16 tracks, there are a handful of tracks that showed potential for this album to be something much more. “Breeze Off the Pond” and “Montana” are straightforward, funky pop jams without much to them, something much needed from the rest of the album. “Morning Light” is a warm neo-soul duet with Alicia Keys that sounds like if The 20/20 Experience was recorded in the mountains. Family is another strong concept of the album; Timberlake’s wife, actress Jessica Biel, talks and sings on several tracks, and his toddler son harmonizing closes out “Young Man”.
But over 66 minutes, the album runs way deeper than the waters it intended to explore. “Modern Americana with 808s” wasn’t just a promotional tagline to get people talking; it really is the focus of the album, and while it sounds decent at first, it runs thin way too fast. While none of the songs reach the 6-8 minute lengths of The 20/20 Experience, many of them still go on a minute or two longer than they really need to be. The title track mixes twangy country guitars with trap drums and a bouncy but misplaced bassline, and the result is just as terrible as it sounds. “Sauce” mixes cringeworthy raps with rock guitars that sound like they were mixed in the bottom of a dirty pond. “Midnight Summer Jam” takes a shallow, rushed boogie and places a random, unnecessary harmonica solo in the middle of it. Well-intentioned father-son advice track “Young Man” takes a good concept and hollows it out with the most cliché advice imaginable; stay strong; don’t back down; etc. Ultimately, Man of the Woods’ best tracks are hard to pay attention to due to all the things Timberlake is trying to accomplish all at once, and even its best tracks don’t compare with the lowest points of FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience.
Man of the Woods is best left forgotten, a huge misstep in Timberlake’s consistent vault of hits. Man of the Woods is without a big single or three to take over the year, like all of his previous albums had. Rather, it’s a huge cluster of ideas that could’ve been something great on their own, but ultimately comes across as Timberlake throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, seeing what sticks, and then lazily putting together the most uninteresting ones on a song together. It’s telling that Timberlake didn’t perform any of the album at his Super Bowl halftime show aside from the first minute of “Filthy”; it’s simply not worthy. It’s not a bad thing to experiment; Timberlake has done just that with all of his albums. But there’s a line where experimenting can go too far. Here, we’re left with a failed experiment blending country with modern trap sounds, two great but entirely different sounds that should never be mentioned in the same sentence together. We’re much better off forgetting that this ever happened.
Photo courtesy of RCA Records