I’m not exactly sure who Justin Timberlake is, and after Man of the Woods, I’m not really sure any of us ever did.
The idea of Timberlake as a pop star seems to have passed. He’s retreated from the public eye like Taylor Swift, but her return last year still commanded the attention a pop star deserves—even though her absence during the election led many to question her political allegiance and whether she was using her silence to court fans who leaned Trump.
As for Timberlake, no one has really wondered much about him since his last lackluster album, The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2. Even now, as Dylan Farrow, Rose McGowan and others question his involvement in a Woody Allen film, and the public wonders whether or not he’s actually mended fences with Janet as he approaches his Super Bowl halftime performance, there’s still not much fervor for Timberlake as a POP STAR. In this climate, Timberlake has become inessential. Hence Man of the Woods, his purported attempt to strip down to the basics and reveal what’s behind the pop veneer in the way that his contemporaries have. Unfortunately, the album reveals that there’s...nothing there.
Timberlake’s initial forays into the solo pop realm were buoyed by The Neptunes and Timbaland. The former boy-bander has always possessed stage presence and magnetism, but in terms of his music it’s never truly felt like he was in the driver’s seat. Timberlake-as-pop-star worked best when he was oozing charisma and giving you his best attempt at a Michael Jackson performance.
His music has, for the most part, never required much introspection—they’re dance-floor anthems and nothing more. Unfortunately, Man of the Woods invites extra scrutiny because of how it’s been promoted, with its trailer featuring babbling brooks and flannel shirts and becoming one with nature. You’d think, then, that the album would invite a deep dive into who Timberlake is and what has driven him. But Lemonade and 4:44 this is not.
Timberlake employs The Neptunes and Timbaland to give his album a burst of energy, which they do, but at this point the 37-year-old is well beyond his hip-hop imitating days and feels as an adult, he needs to offer something more. We first saw this on The 20/20 Experience, a departure from his previous albums that were beat and synth heavy; instead, it offered a throwback feel that implied Timberlake had hidden depths. That implication comes at you full bore on Man of the Woods, which boasts interesting production along with banal lyrics that offer nothing about him as an artist or person. It’s borderline vapid in its presentation of what an “artist” is, and feels at times as if he’s cosplaying as someone baring his soul—or that his friendship with Chris Stapleton has led him to believe he can give you country music-level pathos.
There are some songs like “Higher Higher” which tap into what we love about Justin—a solid beat and emotional vocals. But for the most part, the music seems incongruous with what he’s offering. There’s nothing particularly novel about this album, and worse, it’s boring as hell. He’s not pushing the cultural conversation like his contemporaries and isn’t even offering what he used to—now that Bruno Mars has taken up the mantle of the non-black artist that dabbles in black throwback jingles.
Moreover, the album comes across as a vanity project. He once again has that in common with Swift: neither of their albums feel like they fit in the current climate of music, and it’s almost as if they’re pushing back against what is expected of them. But mostly, it means that Timberlake is out of touch. We’ve seen this in social media blunders, where he responded, “oh, you sweet soul” to someone who asked him about cultural appropriation. He seems ignorant of the fact that social media wants #JusticeForJanet. He seems like he’s ready to altogether ignore what his association with Woody Allen means.
For someone who was once firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist, Timberlake feels oddly removed from it in a way that makes his latest attempt at pop stardom seem extraneous. Did we miss Timberlake? Maybe. But is this the Timberlake we grew up with? No, and his efforts to show that he’s evolved seem to be nothing more than smoke, mirrors, and a collection of inessential songs that no one will remember when they think of their favorite contributions to pop culture from JT.