Justin Timberlake released a new single last week, and it’s about…something. Maybe it’s about sex, or partying, or love. What I definitely know is that there is not a complete thought to be found. “Filthy,” released Friday as the first single from Timberlake’s upcoming album, Man of the Woods, is not breaking any walls down. There’s no message, no purpose, no aim. It’s an alien space song with a wobbling bassline and a heavy dose of funk. At just under five minutes, it’s a bite-size dose of pure cotton candy escapism. Which is absolutely, positively what Justin Timberlake should be doing in 2018.
For years, fans and critics alike have predicted a Timberlake country album. In May 2016, E! news reported that Timberlake “hints he’s going country.” Last Tuesday, when announcing his new album’s rollout, Timberlake uploaded a video to YouTube. A trailer, you might call it. There are shots of campfires, of swaying wheat fields, of purple mountains majesty. Here is Timberlake, presented as the messiah draped in hand-dyed textiles, standing in a river, arms outstretched. “More so than any other album I’ve written, [this album is inspired by] where I’m from,” Timberlake says in the voiceover, “and it’s personal.”
The video, which has already been viewed more than 2 million times, hinted at an Americana JT: Justin Cougar Timberlake. Which is hard to reconcile with a guy who doesn’t exactly conjure images of the Marlboro Man. He is, and probably always will be, a waif-man who spins on his toes with the spirit of Michael Jackson. For Justin Timberlake, authenticity extends from lyrics like “Gotta chill, baby, you’re the coldest” to “I guess I got my swagger back.”
All signs pointed toward a radical shift into country. Timberlake was seen entering the studio with country band Little Big Town, and he performed at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards with Chris Stapleton. And he is, after all, a white boy from Tennessee, a man who wore an entire denim outfit to the American Music Awards along with his high school sweetheart. Hell, Miley Cyrus made the country pivot, and even Kesha went back to her Nashville roots on last year’s Rainbow. Three makes a trend, and the promo for Man of the Woods certainly suggested Timberlake would be the third. But while he’s proven himself talented enough to pull off a country album, it’s a space that doesn’t suit him. To successfully shift genres, an artist would be expected to evolve over the course of a few albums; think Taylor’s Swift’s country-to-pop metamorphosis, but in reverse. A pivot from a collection as electronic and rhythmic as The 20/20 Experience straight into honky-tonk territory might give fans whiplash.
Thankfully, when “Filthy” dropped on Friday morning, it seemed those concerns were unfounded. There’s not an ounce of twang on the track. In fact, it sounds more like Bruno Mars’s recent 24K Magic or Beck’s Midnite Vultures than anything at the CMAs. Timberlake returns to his time-honored collaborators to create a song that sounds more like what he was doing ten years ago than anything happening in the present. It sounds like, well, a Justin Timberlake song, only more so. There is some funk, some guitar, some falsetto, and some weird galactic drone sounds. It is a glitchy, goofy throwback to 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. Which honestly, thank god.
“Filthy” is, on every level, fun, closer to The Barry Gibb Talk Show on Saturday Night Live than it is to that promo video. And nowhere is that clearer than in its music video, where Timberlake plays a kind of Steve Jobs–style Silicon Valley savior who is, through some technology, connected to a robot that mimics his motions. There is no commentary in this video about robots overtaking us, or the danger of technology, or the power of tech billionaires. Which is just fine. We have a whole new season of Black Mirror for that.
From the promotional video, it looked like Justin Timberlake was getting serious, which is the last thing his fans want. He is a boyish white man with a metric ton of money who spent his entire life in the spotlight. No one wants a political album from Justin Timberlake in the same way no one wants politics from Jimmy Fallon. That’s not what they are good at. They’re good at shiny objects and distraction and laughing too loudly. And on “Filthy” he’s giving fans what they want.
The discomfort and confusion that accompanied the Man of the Woods promo clip is an extension of a deeper criticism: that Timberlake appropriates black music to create his sound. Even though most of his collaborators as a solo artist have been black, he’s occasionally run into trouble when it comes to race. There was the fact that he never apologized to Janet Jackson for the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” for which she took all the heat, the feud with Prince, and then a poorly worded tweet around Jesse Williams’s BET Awards speech.
Next month, Justin Timberlake will play the halftime show of Super Bowl LII. He was, in many respects, the safest choice, Nipplegate notwithstanding. Man of the Woods, due out February 2, will feature his longtime collaborators the Neptunes, a song with Alicia Keys, and production by Pharrell and Timbaland, but there is also a collaboration with Nashville rebel Chris Stapleton, so there’s a little something for everyone.
The question, now, is whether or not the rest of the album will follow the tone set by “Filthy” or by the promo. When he said the album would represent where he’s from, did Timberlake mean the Mickey Mouse Club’s pop, Tennessee’s country, or the legacy of Memphis, where he spent his childhood? That, after all, is the home of Elvis, the original white boy appropriating popular black music into a version more palatable for white America. For the next three weeks, Timberlake will release a single each Friday, until the album’s release. Maybe by then we’ll have a better idea of what’s in store: The re-emergence of one of America’s most entertaining and distracting performers. Or a “back-to-basics” attempt at red state authenticity. I, for one, hope it’s the former.