BY PARKER KLYN
“I guess I got my swagger back” is one of the best catchphrases in hip-hop. Innovated by Jay-Z and replicated by countless other artists, it’s become the go-to for a rapper on a comeback.
Justin Timberlake says it within the first minute of the opening track on “Man of the Woods,” his fifth studio album. He could not be more wrong. There is almost no semblance of swagger or charisma throughout the record’s sixteen tracks, as Timberlake opts to move back to his Southern “roots,” so to speak.
The themes on “Man of the Woods” are those of summer in middle America, with an embrace of production more prevalent on folk and country records than the pop, soul, and club music Timberlake exhibited on his first four albums. It does not go over well. A full minute in the middle of “Midnight Summer Jam” is a beat breakdown dedicated to – no joke – a harmonica solo.
The title track is an incredibly cloying bro-country tune, with sugary sweet vocal harmonies on the hook and an unnecessary synthetic bass line. I’m stunned that the Neptunes (the incredible production duo consisting of Pharrell and Chad Hugo) were behind the boards on this and most other tracks on the record, as “Man of the Woods” has some of the most awkward and uninspired production I’ve heard in the pop landscape in a while. They also insist on synthetic sub-bass under literally every track on this album, which is a ridiculously puzzling production choice, as it clashes with the organic instrumentation.
“Supplies” is genuinely the worst song I’ve heard in a long time, as it is a horrible attempt at a trap-folk banger. The lyrics are irredeemable (the first verse tells an un-ironic story of Timberlake being the “is this guy bothering you?” dude at a party, and the last line on the pre-chorus is “The world could end now, baby, we’ll be living in the Walking Dead”), and Timberlake’s folky vocal melodies aren’t inventive, catchy, or even that well-performed.
Speaking of vocals, it’s hard to imagine that this is the same Timberlake who captivated audiences as a member of N*SYNC, as well as his first couple solo records. It’s reminiscent of Eminem’s descent into a guy that’s just difficult to listen to; Timberlake simply doesn’t stand out as well as he used to. None of the deep-seated soul manifests itself in the record’s vocals, especially when compared to solid contributions by Alicia Keys and especially Chris Stapleton.
There are occasional moments of clarity and beauty. “Flannel” is one of the safest songs on the record, but it goes over well thanks to warm harmonies that allow it to fit snugly alongside adult contemporary mainstays like Uncle Kracker and Jack Johnson, giving it a timeless quality. Despite some awful songwriting, I enjoy the beat and groove behind “Filthy.” And despite the generic pop-reggaeton of the closing track “Young Man,” the sentiment behind the song is nice: “Young man, you’re gonna have to stand for something.”
Timberlake is an incredible talent. Before Bruno Mars’s rise to fame, I would have said that Timberlake was pop’s leading performer/writer/singer trifecta. His best album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” was incredibly experimental and boundary-pushing – and Timberlake sold it flawlessly. His list of impeccable singles is extensive: “Rock Your Body,” “Cry Me A River,” “What Goes Around Comes Around,” “Suit and Tie,” “Mirrors,” “Not A Bad Thing,” and, of course, “SexyBack.” Even “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” which exhibited no innovation or anything new, was a great, well-performed tune. I can’t say that’s the case for most of “Man of the Woods.”
At halftime of Super Bowl LII, Timberlake performed a medley of most of these hits. This was a wise choice, because that material is so much better and more consistent than “Man of the Woods.” It didn’t do anything to dispel my sneaking suspicion, however, that this record was rushed in an attempt to capitalize on Timberlake’s performance. When the best moments on an album are simply “fine” or “acceptable” it’s a major disappointment, especially for Timberlake who we know can be great.