Over the past five years, popstar Justin Timberlake has been in a musical drought. Even though he delivered a delivery truck full of Dasani in the form of his mega-hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” in 2016, the rest of the landscape has been quite a desert. Since his 2007 album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake has seemed more concerned with his career as an actor and all-around famous guy, than making music. When his newest album was announced and teased as a new country-influenced sound for the artist, it became impossible to not be intrigued and anticipated. After riding on the coattails of a highly promoted performance at the Super Bowl, two days after the album’s release, Timberlake’s newest album Man of the Woods does little to capitalize on the fanfare that is built around him.
Throughout the Man of the Woods, the shining star is not pop icon Justin Timberlake, but the production. The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Timberlake all did a fantastic job of finding unique ways to explore into the genres they wanted to touch on. Whether it was country-pop like on “The Hard Stuff”, pop-rock on “Sauce”, or R&B on “Montana” the producers managed to find interesting instrumentation blended with modern hip-hop influenced drums and bass to make songs that stand out in comparison to the current pop landscape. Timberlake, the singer, doesn’t really come out until the mid-point on the album, singing tenderly on “Morning Light (feat. Alicia Keys)”. The track is the first reminder that Timberlake is still the same artist that made mega-hits on FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006) and The 20/20 Experience (2013).
Not only does Timberlake show up as a singer, but as writer as well. The back half of the album, starting at “Say Something”, hit on the album’s much promoted rural, outdoors theme. The run of tracks starting at “Flannel” and ending at “Young Man” all lyrically and thematically are statements from Timberlake about how he feels as a husband and father. Timberlake sounds as if he wants to hold onto his wife and kid in a cabin away from the world that just seeks to tear them down. Despite this, he chooses to share these sentiments with his audience anyway.
With the amount of unique production that Pharrell, Chad Hugo, Timbaland, and Timberlake built together, there is a consistent lack of cohesion. Timberlake touches on so many different sounds that he lacks perfection in any one genre. The album starts off as this experimental hip-hop on “Filthy,” hits moments of country and folk, then becomes jarring at the atrocious track, “Supplies.” This trap-pop song has him singing with a Migos-like flow and would’ve been more fitting with an artist like Chris Brown. The musical style on this track is never revisited or twisted in a manner for it to make sense in the album’s supposed theme. Timberlake does return to that Americana-meets-808’s sound afterwards, but breaks the cohesion again momentarily for the song “Montana,” which sounds like a Weeknd throwaway track. This greater lack of flow across the album does little to push Americana or pop music forward into its next iteration. The style of songs they created here will not become commonplace in the rest of pop music in the year 2018.
The production being so lush, yet lacking in uniformity also leads to few moments where Timberlake shines as a singer and popstar. He doesn’t give any particularly moving vocal performances and on tracks “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Wave” where he barely seems present at all. Lyrically most of the tracks lack that “It” factor. With the exception of “Say Something” and “Morning Light,” the majority of the album is not catchy and doesn’t contain the kind of lyricism heard on his last album that becomes impossible to get out of your head. The lack of catchy pop hits make listening to the tracks in between more of a task. With these in-between tracks being half-baked country-pop, it leaves Timberlake looking confused with a poor attempt at a new image.
Despite being a Justin Timberlake album, Man of the Woods is a better showcase for the talent of his producers than him as a popstar. Most of the tracks are forgettable and in the case of “Supplies”, the general public should choose to forget that one altogether. After five years of waiting, Timberlake is more concerned with creating a country vibe than being the guy that brought “Sexy Back.” Considering the success of his 2016 hit, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Justin Timberlake will need to reevaluate his relationship with The Neptunes and Timbaland if he wants to continue to sell out arenas. By taking off his suit and tie and trading it for flannel, Timberlake and his team have forgotten to maintain his stature as a pop artist. Whether the lack of simple pop tunes on the album was a calculated risk or not, Timberlake is the one who suffers as a result, leaving his future as a musician uncertain.