What the Hell Is Justin Timberlake Even Doing Right Now?

After teasing a backwoods country makeover, the pop star releases a lame, uninspired club track—his least sexy yet. What is going on with the self-proclaimed ‘Man of the Woods?’

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Never mind the ridiculous rebranding as “Man of the Woods.” Never mind that Justin Timberlake’s re-emergence as a Brawny paper towel man pop star, with all the backwoods ruggedness of a J. Crew catalog model, fueled speculation that the singer’s next effort was going to be some stripped-down country effort inspired by his Tennessee roots. Never mind that the new song and video that he released Friday, “Filthy,” contradicts literally everything he had been teasing about some sort of new direction with all this pretentious buildup to his new album.

The worst thing about “Filthy” is that it is a bad pop song.

Is it confusing that Timberlake had put all this effort into a marketing campaign peddling some sort of Bon Iver makeover, mocked by The Outline in a post titled “Justin Timberlake Is Rebranding as a White Man,” only to release a thumping club track as his album’s new single, accompanied by a sleek music video set at some Apple-like tech product launch? Yes, unless there is some Smoky Mountain connection to a breakdancing robot that I’m not aware of. Truthfully haven’t been to that part of our country.

But that is, in theory, fine. Recent pop history has taught us not to judge a work by a wonky lead single, which Taylor Swift will certainly attest to, and a just-released Man of the Woods tracklist with song titles like “Flannel,” “Montana,” “Breeze of the Pond,” and “Livin’ Off the Land” suggests that the Timberlake version of Joanne no one really asked for could still be in store for us. Jessica Biel’s assertion that her husband’s new music will be “Wild West, but now,” whatever the fuck that means, may yet not be an empty threat.

Besides, this is the guy who brought sexy back, who donned his suit and tie and implored us all to rock our bodies, who got us so high on the feeling that we literally can’t stop it. (“It” being getting the damn song out of our heads anytime we hear it.) If Justin Timberlake is going to give us a sultry club smash, who are we to complain about it? It’s his thing! We should be so lucky!

If only “Filthy” wasn’t such uninspired, phoned-in trash. Clever, Justin. Now we actually want that country album.

“Hey, if you know what’s good!” Timberlake croons, serving as his own hype man, over the opening seconds of the track. Thing is, we do. Because he’s given us great pop music before. Reminding us of that standard might not have been the smartest move before erupting into a listless electro-pop dance song that barely inspires you to tap your toes, let alone make love to the dance floor.

The mumbling track, produced by Timbaland and Danja, is a whirl of whomping special effects beeps and groans that amount less to a tornado of sound than discarded drafts of better ideas circling the drain. Verses and the chorus are indecipherable, with nary a hook to be found. A bombastic bridge startles when it comes out of nowhere, and just when the crescendo is about to finally lift off, the track crashes back into the same sleepy, repetitious groove.

Timberlake’s vocals are similarly haphazard. The affected squeaks of his delivery are an obviously deliberate choice, in stark contrast to the buttery smooth falsetto he typically seduces us with. It’s sorely missed, with his staccato, arrhythmic delivery hardly suggesting the pulsing momentum of anything “filthy” we’re used to his songs getting us in the mood for.

Missing is the carnality—the sonic sweat—that typically drips off these songs. There was something so inventive about the way Timberlake would trade on the familiarity of his boyband-honed pop voice and then channel the erotic adventurousness of Prince to create a sound that was naughty, but at the same time streamlined enough to service a mainstream pop-radio audience. “Filthy” is too meandering to register as particularly arousing, or as an earworm hit in any traditional sense.

His lyrics typically play as whispered come-ons, as arousing as if they were delivered in the throes of passion. Here, they’re just baffling. “What you gonna do with all that meat?” he asks at one point. “Cookin’ up a mean servin’.” What in god’s name is he talking about? Whose meat? Do women have meat? (I thought “meat” was a euphemism for penises.) What would a mean serving of meat look like? I assume it’s an innuendo, but maybe he’s actually talking about food?

The video for “Filthy” doesn’t particularly help clarify anything. Timberlake is dressed as a Steve Jobs-like figure presenting at the “2028 Pan-Asian Deep Learning Conference.” He’s presenting a robot who can dance, with Timberlake seemingly controlling its moves from the wings of the stage. I don’t believe that Timberlake and the robot are fucking each other, which therefore makes it a confusing video for a suggestive song titled “Filthy.” But the robot does have good dance moves.

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The big question remaining is what we are to glean about the rest of Timberlake’s new music from “Filthy.” The safest assumption is that it’s meant as a red herring, a purposeful bait-and-switch to drum up more surprised—if befuddled—interest in this presumed country-tinged record he’ll be releasing next month by premiering a lead single that doesn’t adhere to that aesthetic in the least. It’s not particularly useful, then, to take “Filthy” as any sort of indicator of Timberlake’s musical direction, other than to be disappointed that, as a pop song, it’s pretty lame.

Plenty of jokes about the rugged version of himself that Timberlake is presenting with Man of the Woods have been made, and will continue to be made in the lead-up to the album. Some are pretty funny. And it’s worth observing this retreat into “authenticity” from a pop star who catapulted as a solo artist borrowing the aesthetic of mostly black musicians before him.

With all that said, Timberlake is one of the few pop stars of his stature who has been a true albums artist. That itself should be enough to get excited about what’s to come, whether it was recorded from a cabin he Airbnb’d outside Chattanooga, or the tony Los Angeles mansion he shares with Jessica Biel, having taken a hike up Runyon Canyon and decreed himself a “man of the woods.”