Justin Timberlake is still figuring himself out

We've finally heard “Filthy” and we have questions.

January 5, 2018

Justin Timberlake is 36.

I don’t point that out to make you feel old, or make him seem old. I point it out because it doesn’t quite feel real. He kind of exists independent of age for a lot of people. For some, he feels older, the product of him being in the public sphere for almost as long as he’s been alive; with the Mickey Mouse Club in 1993, and then in *NSync onward from 1995. For others, that seems too young. They remember Timberlake’s curly noodle hair, his awkward, chunky turtlenecks and his denim adorned love saga with Britney Spears.

But whichever camp you’re in, it probably feels like it’s been a while since we’ve heard new music from him. Is that true, though?

Disappointing as it was, The 20/20 Experience wrapped up in 2013 — in March, if, like us, you pretend 2 of 2 didn’t happen. And so, sure: Man of the Woods is his first album in 5 years, but that’s still a shorter gap than the nearly seven years that separated FutureSex/LoveSounds and The 20/20 Experience.

It’s not like Timberlake hasn’t been busy.

But Man of the Woods was billed to us as, if not a rebirth, than an evolution. “Filthy,” its first single, doesn’t quite get us there.

Its video, which plays like a mix between the start of a Black Mirror episode and Kaytranada’s “Lite Spots” video, is fine — in it, a Steve Jobs-ian Timberlake shows off his dancing robot at a keynote conference. But the song is lacking something, which for Timberlake, seems rare. Perhaps is a symptom of the video’s ambition; it regularly drowns the song out, muddying the melodies, and burying the hooks under ambient noise and YouTube’s so-so sound quality. But even listening to the song clearly on its own confuses the direction hinted at in the Man of the Woods teasers. This isn’t Maggie Rogers-like folktronica. This isn’t an extension of his Saturday Night Live Bon Iver parody, like many joked it would be. It is, ultimately, just a Justin Timberlake song. Which for the first time potentially ever, comes off less like something to be excited about and more like a casual concern.

Ultimately, Man of the Woods needs to tell us who Timberlake has become in the years since his last album. At 36, who is he? Will we meet the real Timberlake, a Memphis boy who, aside from a childhood groomed at Disney World is a country boy at heart? Will we hear from Justin Timberlake, family man? He’s been married now for five years, and has a two-year-old son, Silas. It doesn’t feel like “Can’t Stop The Feeling” Justin Timberlake; instead, it sounds kind of like “SexyBack,” but different, Justin Timberlake.

We’ve got a few weeks until the album drops, and we still only know the gist of it. Which Timberlake we’re going to get on it is yet to be fully seen (or heard). But for the first time in a long time, maybe we’re a little bit worried? At this point, after so long away, we’d settle for “Dick In A Box” Timberlake.

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