Most people think the turning point of Justin Timberlake’s career was his solo debut, Justified.
That is justified (soz), yet as significant and public as that milestone was, it was the final transformation born of the seeds planted with the making and release of Celebrity, *NSYNC’s third and final album.
Celebrity was the moment Justin Timberlake stepped out and showed his chops as a songwriter – his only three co-writes on the album were also the only three songs released as singles – Pop, Gone, and Girlfriend. Coincidence? Me thinks not.
Just as importantly, along with saying ‘bye, bye, bye (bye, bye *boom boom*)’ to his peroxide perm for a smoother shaved-head, this also helped elevate him – and *NSYNC – from tween-pin up into respected pop-singer and sex symbol.
These characteristics have become synonymous with Justin and his music. They go hand in hand and reciprocally feed off each other – the music plays up to his ‘lover boy of the future’ vibe, his sex appeal makes it not only believable but bankable and his songwriting and risk taking gives his music a rare credibility for someone who looks and sounds as he does.
That might sound cynical, it’s not. Justin Timberlake is without doubt one of my favourite musicians. Aside from Beyoncé, it’s hard to think of another pop artist who has pushed the boundaries of pop music so much and maintained both critical and commercial success.
So, I’ll admit that when I heard his new album was to be called Man of the Woods, it took a little bit away from my usual all-confident fan-girl level of excitement and the assumption that this would be yet another brilliant future-sex funk romp evolving perfectly from the last.
How to reconcile these expectations with visions of JT going all Bon Iver-in-a-wintry-cabin-in-the-woods on us? That was the big question. Change is hard but rarely a bad thing, I pep-talked myself. Plus, the supreme confidence I have in him made the benefit of the doubt a little easier to give.
Maybe fatherhood had mellowed him, I thought. Maybe it was some kind of metaphor for escaping the current political and social climate “I know, let’s go the woods, it will be safe there!”.
Also, maybe if anyone could pull off a modern day pop version of kumbaya (and let’s face it, totally rock an urban lumberjack look) it was probably him. One of the songs on the track list is titled ‘Flannel’, after all.
Then, within 24 hours he dropped the first single, Filthy. Straight away it became pretty clear he wasn’t talking about a muddy walk in those woods.
Some people have gobbled it up, like my sister and the Guardian, who each gave the song 5 stars (or in my sister’s case, the Facebook message equivalent). The official reviewer among those two compared him to Prince for a new generation of funk-loving adults.
Then you have Pitchfork, a long-time supporter of JT’s, dismissing the song and all but suggesting it as evidence he has lost his mojo. The reaction on social media has been even less kind #cueoutrage #howdarehe #justintimberlol
I get it. It’s not surprising how polarising this song is. The opening sounds like it belongs in a rock musical on the West End before it then shifts into more expected future-funk territory with that wonky – and quite tasty – beat. If I heard this song in a club, I’d actually describe it as a filthy bassline, which might be the only positive way to use that word. Then around halfway through that Rent-like moment get another re-birth.
It’s not complex, nor is it a subtle song. Though, it is a mildly confusing one. It has all the trademarks of some classic JT shit – bombastic swagger, suggestive lyrics and it is an unexpected treat in many ways.
The missing ingredient is that it’s not the usual smooth. Even SexyBack, with all its ‘YAH’ and harsh bravado basically became so familiar after a couple of listens that it was like part of the family. And not just an uncle either, it was like a brother.
Still, I find myself drawn to this Filthy hot mess. My main criticism would be that his voice isn’t centre-stage enough. Other than that, I am basically down for it.
The Guardian’s Prince reference is a reasonable one. Yet, this feels more like George Michael’s rebel dance moments, think Freeek! ‘04, a song that challenges the status quo but ultimately still has George and his voice as the star attraction.
Freeek actually samples Try Again by Aaliyah. In the sort of nice little coincidence I love to dabble in, Filthy and Try Again share a songwriter/producer – one, Mr Timbaland. Herein may lay the biggest risk/success factor in this song and the album to come.
Man of the Woods will now be the fourth JT album in a row that has Timbaland at the co-helm.
Timbaland is infamous for his innovation and creativity over the years – there are few producers whose influence I regard as highly or has brought me as much joy. Still, he seems to have some kind of creative threshold. Timbaland and Missy Elliott were the original future-busting duo of tomorrow and even they reached their creative and commercial peak after three albums.
Aside from FutureSex/LoveSounds and the 20/20 Experience (the brilliant first one, not the pointless second one) Timbaland has been fairly stale for years. After his success with Missy, he had a second coming around the mid ’00s with Nelly Furtado (Loose) and Justin (FS/LS), along with a string of ‘solo’ hits like the Way I Are. He became so in demand that his portfolio diversified to include Bjork and Ashlee Simpson.
Aside from the occasional co-write/production on a couple of Beyoncé tracks (along with an army of others) his main claim to fame since this platinum-era is working with Justin.
The two have had an impeccable run since Cry Me a River (my equal favourite JT song) and their track record speaks for itself. Also, we’ve seen what happens when Justin is left to his own devices.
The question is – can they deliver again? Or has the future caught up with them?
Justin Timberlake’s albums always sound borderline experimental but they straddle the likeability scale to perfection. That is, they are experimental within a particular ‘safe zone’. That takes skill and probably some reading the room in the mix too.
This is the first time he has released a song that doesn’t seem to care for what the room wants or thinks. And it sounds like he knows it – “haters gon’ say it’s fake”.
It all reminds me of a classic song from 2001:
“Now, why you want to try to classify the type of thing we do
Cause were just fine doin what we like, can we say the same for you
Tired of feelin all around me animosity
Just worry about trust cause I’ma get mine, people can’t you see”
That’s Pop from *NSYNC’s Celebrity. One of these three singles co-written by Justin Timberlake.
Whatever we think of Filthy, we can be assured that Justin Timberlake knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows we still “like that dirty pop”.