On Friday, Justin Timberlake will release his fifth album, Man of the Woods. You may remember that he teased the album with a visual trailer that was akin to a white version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade visuals, with Timberlake doing odd things in the outside with horses, snow, fire, frilly leather jackets, dirty T-shirts and gloves. He seems to be exploring some long-lost connection he’s felt toward grass and trees and shit. It was laughable at best. It’s almost as if he was going for performative Alaskan bush person, but ya know, I’m paying to see what my AncestryDNA results look like, so who am I to judge a person looking to connect with his inner self?
Be that as it may, the album itself is fairly ridiculous as a concept. It’s cringeworthy in parts and feels almost like the first performative whiteness album in history. Like, he really has a song on this album called “Flannel” that is AS ridiculous as the title suggests, where he tries, in his best folk impression, to make you think that he not only wears flannel but that maybe went to Walmart to get it, as opposed to Saks, where he probably buys all of his Canada Goose and Moncler winter coats and Calvin Klein hosiery.
Hear this and hear this good, Justin: Throwing banjos over Neptunes production does not a “woodsy man of the people, or of the outside” album make. Who the fuck decides they want to make a folksy album and calls up Timbaland, Danja and Pharrell? And I think that Timbo and Pharrell are some of the greatest producers in music history regardless of genre, but their lane isn’t “making white people move with guitars.”
To his credit, Chris Stapleton is on a song, “Say Something,” that is sure to be a single to convince white people who otherwise only know Justin Timberlake from movies to buy this album. I’m sure they’ll be disappointed when they can’t stop their pickups from rattling as the 808 from each song forces them to turn the bass further down on their car equalizers. It’s going to be hard to go lower than the current negative 10 setting, though.
Which is the big problem with this album, aside from what I already said: J.T. is attempting to make a pop-folk album, except his entire musical sensibility is rooted in the Michael Jackson and Prince schools of sound. His creative muses are black music songwriters and producers who have managed to craft pop hits on grandiose scales, but errum, even they probably wondered where these magical woods are that Justin was trying to tell them about.
When Timberlake first dropped the visual trailer, I actually thought he might be able to pull it off in an avant-garde genre-bending fashion, as long as Timbaland was present and handling the entire direction. Back in 2003, Timbaland crafted a criminally slept-on album for Bubba Sparxxx called Deliverance that is effectively the rap version of what I thought Man of the Woods could be. That album was chock-full of country-rap tunes that were entirely crafted around the sound and themes of Bubba, his story and his voice. Its highs are impressive—Timbaland and Bubba clearly had a vision and they worked hard to execute it.
Timberlake, however, literally went to nothing but producers who work in the hip-hop/hip-pop realm for his woodsy sound, and the results end up being confusing. For instance, the first single, “Filthy,” is some oddly dated futuristic pop that I’m pretty sure nobody would listen to in the woods. Where the fuck is Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon when you need him? Kanye can get him on the line, but Timberlake can’t?
To be clear, the music on this album isn’t all bad or anything; it’s just confusing. There are some very, very dancy numbers because of solid Neptunes production. Also, none of those songs sound like the theme Timberlake attempted to present. Like, “Midnight Summer Jam” is a fun song that sounds great for whatever wedding you attend this year despite Timberlake’s a-little-too-pitchy falsetto. Of course, he also punctuates this song with odd lines like, “Y’all can’t do better than this, act like the South ain’t the shit,” which, #BishWhet?
Then there’s “Sauce,” which, I mean, is some kind of rock-bop knockoff guitar-driven ... you know what? There’s not a single song on this album that wouldn’t be improved by Bruno Mars. I don’t know how better to explain the oddity of this album. I mean, there’s a song called “Montana” because woods, I’m guessing, except that song sounds more like, I don’t know, not Montana? The idea of the state of Montana sounds like open roads and no speed limits. Timberlake’s “Montana” sounds like a song you could play at a meet and greet during fashion week. He does mention mountains in the song, though.
The title song sounds like it had country aspirations but the Neptunes don’t have a country sound bank OR can’t stop themselves from going full Neptunes. The song is supposed to have a down-home feel, but it just feels like any other Neptunes song that they’ve ever made. Again, none of it is bad music, though the songwriting needs work. It’s just interesting considering what he keeps trying to convince us of: that he’s a Southern man of the woods.
This album would have been better titled something like 808s and Banjos. Or Views From the 901. Or, hell, I-40 or, more simply, Memphis or Beale Street. If he was really about that life, he could have called the album Memphis Grizzly. The Man of the Woods title implies something that Timberlake simply isn’t: a motherfucking man of the woods.
That he went into the woods as a kid or watches Ozark doesn’t make him a man of the woods. He’s said in interviews that he was going for a feeling of bringing the outside indoors—hence the woods. And that’s cute, but his outside sounds like some inauthentic attempt at whiteness that he, while white, has never really dabbled in musically.
I’m sure the album will sell well and have a few singles that might cross over to other charts aside from where he feels the most comfortable—pop and R&B—but I feel like this album was what happens when an artist starts to lose touch with what makes him interesting to begin with—giving in to his natural musical tendencies and letting the audiences come to him.
Or maybe I just ain’t been to the woods in a while.