Music nerd rule numero uno: Never trust what the artist tells you about the new material. By the time most performers and producers start fielding questions about “their new direction,” they’ve spent several days and weeks eyeballing waveforms and making incremental changes to try and actualize ideas they heard in their head. They give a lofty, loopy answer to the inquiry that quickens fans’ thirst, but by the time everyone gets to hear the thing, it’s never quite what was promised. The buzz around Kanye West post–My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was that he was hard at work on a boom bap album, but instead we got Watch the Throne, which did take beats from ’90s rap architects like RZA, Q-Tip, and Pete Rock but is remembered more for the regal embellishments and overdubs than the old-school drum programming underfoot. No one can tell for sure what the hell they’re making until it’s mastered.
In the midst of the low-grade madness surrounding the new Justin Timberlake album Man of the Woods, I’m not so sure everyone got the memo about taking pre-album promo with a grain. Tuesday’s reveal came via a theatrical trailer that showed the Tennessee singer wading through cornfields, ponds, and snowy plains surrounded by horses and campfires. Pharrell said the music was “earthy.” Jessica Biel said it was “Wild West, but now.” By lunchtime, Twitter was a flood of Bon Iver jokes. By dinner, there were suggestions that Timberlake had finally gone to Nashville and made his country album. “Justin Timberlake Is Rebranding As a White Man,” one culture blog snapped. Viceland’s late-night television stars Desus and Mero called it “American History MAGA.”
Man of the Woods’ opener and lead single “Filthy” is out today, and it sounds like we were trolled. “The haters gonna say it’s fake,” Timberlake snarks over pulsing synths and a drum track full of sensual breathing. It’s the polar opposite of what the trailer hinted at. It’s JT by the numbers down to the cast of characters: Writing and production duties are shared between Timberlake, Timbaland, Danja, and singer-songwriter James Fauntleroy, like the two-part 20/20 Experience. “Filthy” sounds like they tried to bring “SexyBack” back. Timbo and Danja’s track is as grimy as the title suggests; the pairing of squelching keys, limber bass, and taut drums is a tasteful recalibration of the bloodless EDM/R&B hybrid attempted on 2016’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” It might be the first time a JT song has had designs on club play since the Bush administration. (20/20 is good, but those are cocktail soiree and bedroom after-party bops.)
Justin’s vocal is mostly just a lot of yelping about how steamy things are getting, but the filthiest he can muster is asking, “Baby don’t you mind if I do / Exactly what you like times two?” These pickup lines seem extra-dry coming from a singer who once scored a spot on Diddy’s Last Train to Paris album and, on “Shades,” turned in a verse full of sexy X-Men and gangster jokes. It makes “Filthy” look about as sultry as celery stalks. He’s phoning it in, and honestly I’d rather hear him brick on an ill-advised genre experiment than serving up reductions of his own hooks. “Filthy” feels designed specifically to be performed live, and it’s not lost on me that the release of Man of the Woods is tethered to the same weekend Justin Timberlake will perform at the Super Bowl. It’s shrewd halftime-show fodder that makes me respect last year’s performer Lady Gaga all the more for wheeling into the big show right on the heels of the rhinestone and ten-gallon-hat vibes of Joanne and making damn sure half the United States sat through “Million Reasons.” There’s still time for Man of the Woods to go left (… right?): The track list is out, and it features cuts called “Flannel,” “Montana,” and “Livin’ Off the Land.” But let’s not forget the old saying about assumptions …