Maybe I’m just a fellow white boy who shares his fancy for the music of black artists…but goddamn I love Justin Timberlake.
I’ll leave questions of cultural appropriation to others…but as long as JT continues to shower the originals with credit, I don’t see how respectfully mooching off his beloved influences is a problem.
And very few other musicians channel as many of their inspirations as expertly as this former NSYNC frontman. Man of the Woods starts in his familiar pop register, then over the course of the album, it progressively transitions through R&B until finally landing upon country. Perhaps mainstream culture’s aversion to country resulted in the widespread tepid response to the album, but the way its structure seamlessly shuffles through different genres all while reflecting the lyrical contents of the songs — and their relationships to both each other and the overall work — is the pinnacle of the year in music thus far.
As the cover of the album (see above) suggests, Man of the Woods explores the rift in Timberlake’s identities between his backwoods origins and newfound city-boy fame. It starts with pop-steeped tracks that represent his latter persona; the opening, electro-infused “Filthy” goes harder than the rest, because what aurally evokes life in the 2018 musical fast lane more than EDM? These electronic sounds gradually give way to more pop and R&B, the type that shepherded Timberlake’s ascent to stardom. As such, the album almost reverse-charts his career, slowly taking us from the present to the past.
Once Chris Stapleton enters with his feature on “Say Something”, Man of the Woods has become more of a country album with pop/R&B flare. After the subsequent interlude, we’re firmly back where JT began: in the woods, with the sort of country music long associated with his childhood stomping grounds, albeit with a spruced up sound (my favorite song in this stretch might be “Flannel”, which is like a minimalist lullaby unlike any I’ve heard on a popular album of late). And where else should this backwards journey end but at a new beginning, with the aptly titled “Young Man”, a song both about and featuring his newborn son.
I understand that his underwhelming Super Bowl performance probably left a bad taste in your mouth regarding all things Timberlake. But rest assured, his lack of onstage charisma (and questionable dance skills) are nowhere to be found where he’s at his whiz-kid best: in the recording studio.
Even so, I still — and will probably always — maintain that Justin Timberlake’s best work of art remains his performance in The Social Network…but Man of the Woods isn’t far behind.