Never mind the ridiculous rebranding as Man of the Woods. Never mind that Justin Timberlakes 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 singers 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 albums 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 Im not aware of. Truthfully havent 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 Biels assertion that her husbands 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 cant 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? Its his thing! We should be so lucky!
If only Filthy wasnt such uninspired, phoned-in trash. Clever, Justin. Now we actually want that country album.
Hey, if you know whats good! Timberlake croons, serving as his own hype man, over the opening seconds of the track. Thing is, we do. Because hes 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.
Timberlakes 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. Its sorely missed, with his staccato, arrhythmic delivery hardly suggesting the pulsing momentum of anything filthy were used to his songs getting us in the mood for.
Missing is the carnalitythe sonic sweatthat 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, theyre just baffling. What you gonna do with all that meat? he asks at one point. Cookin up a mean servin. What in gods 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 its an innuendo, but maybe hes actually talking about food?
The video for Filthy doesnt particularly help clarify anything. Timberlake is dressed as a Steve Jobs-like figure presenting at the 2028 Pan-Asian Deep Learning Conference. Hes presenting a robot who can dance, with Timberlake seemingly controlling its moves from the wings of the stage. I dont 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.
The big question remaining is what we are to glean about the rest of Timberlakes new music from Filthy. The safest assumption is that its meant as a red herring, a purposeful bait-and-switch to drum up more surprisedif befuddledinterest in this presumed country-tinged record hell be releasing next month by premiering a lead single that doesnt adhere to that aesthetic in the least. Its not particularly useful, then, to take Filthy as any sort of indicator of Timberlakes musical direction, other than to be disappointed that, as a pop song, its 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 its 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 whats to come, whether it was recorded from a cabin he Airbnbd 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.
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