Black Music Is Still an Essential Part of Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Last Thursday, Justin Timberlake released “Supplies,” the second single and music video from his forthcoming album. The song itself is unremarkable — club-love lyrics and lazy, loping vocals over a generic trap beat. The video is more interesting, if only slightly — a trek through dystopia, with footholds in artifacts like Watchmen, that unfortunately feels very regular in the year 2018 (hive mind, conspiracy, darkness, apocalypse, media, wasteland — we get it, we get it).

When Justin entered promo season for his upcoming album Man of the Woods, many presumed we had entered a new era in the ongoing racial masquerade that has defined his career. A 59-second teaser video featured Justin frolicking among the snow-covered plains and grassy fields, dressed in wool-lined outerwear and flannel and fringe, cut with shots of wild horses, power lines, and a bonfire. The imagery at least signaled whiteness — if only in that very obvious way that wrests a history of rural, backwoods America from its very brown, very multicultural roots and papier-mâchés over the whole thing with a moisturized beard and tastefully rolled denim shirt.

Though he had yet to release so much as a single, it made for a juicy narrative. Justin Timberlake, the boy-band alum who wore bandannas and cornrows, who was on the cover of Vibe and professed a weakness for “sistas” in front of a BET studio audience, who made his mark and wealth from R&B aesthetics and black production — had finally chosen to let the other shoe drop and live his white truth. The Outline’s Ann-Derrick Gaillot assumed this was yet another “leap between racialized identities” (as performed Miley Cyrus and many others) in a piece provocatively titled “Justin Timberlake Is Rebranding As a White Man.” BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen plumbed the mythology of the West as Timberlake sees it, another “pivot” that has historically been a place of comfort for white men who wish to retreat from the world. One genre was tossed around with some consistency — “country.” Next to racial critiques that pose his new look as a retreat from black aesthetics, that genre becomes synonymous with “white.”

And then “Filthy” dropped. And then “Supplies” dropped.

Both tracks are on par within the lineage of Timberlake’s sound, “a sultry club smash” is very much “his thing,” said the Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon upon the release of “Filthy.” Most, if not all reviews of the songs have done some version of what I’ve done above, juxtaposing the presumed whiteness of the albums promotional visuals and track list with the predictable sound Justin has offered instead. “Filthy” has been called “grimy,” “glitchy, digitized funk,” and “a funky throwback” — descriptions that could just as well be applied albums like The 20/20 Experience and FutureSex/LoveSounds. “Supplies” is more lax, but thematically in accord. The vaguely trap-like song, conspicuously without a rap feature, is inoffensive if yet again far from what audiences expected. (“Supplies” also appeared as a snippet in the aforementioned promo video.) “Was the Man of the Woods tease just a hilarious joke? A bait and switch?” wonders Esquire’s Matt Miller, along with many others.

Few have been interested in any racial analysis of the tracks now that they’ve made fuzzier the narrative that Timberlake has decided to come out as white via a strictly country sound. The assumption that the whiteness assumed in his promo materials could only be confirmed with country naïvely elides over a century’s worth of folk, country, and blues tradition that could not exist without black songwriters and musicians. “The truth is that black people live in rural areas and are inextricable from the history of country music,” writes Noah Berlatsky. Further, the failure to attend to black aesthetics in the “usual fact” of Timberlake’s sound assumes that appropriation is an all-or-nothing gesture that is without merit as a subject of analysis in and of itself. Either Justin is newly white, in which case we create a narrative arc in order to chastise, or he is an appropriator, in which case we move on to talk about other things.

Meanwhile, both “Filthy” and “Supplies” offer much to interrogate in terms of racial analysis, in visual and in sound. In “Filthy,” Timberlake evokes another white fantasy, that of the performative tech genius (à la Steve Jobs) who unveils a robot creation to the fictional “Pan-Asian Deep Learning Conference” held in Malaysia in 2028. In front of an East Asian crowd, accompanied by Asian women dancers, Timberlake pops and gyrates and crotch grabs and moonwalks and drops it low via his robot surrogate. AAVE is dribbled across the lyrics, which Timberlake recites over a techno-funk beat. In “Supplies,” Timberlake mines as many cultural touchstones as possible for an aesthetic that screams “fall of society,” yet, like other imagined futures in pop culture fails to engage with the white-supremacist regime that forms the template for dystopia. Pharrell appears onscreen briefly and the song ends with Timberlake and Mexican actress Eiza González Reyna standing in a toxic haze with a row of ethnically ambiguous children. Not the version of idyllic whiteness critics anticipated, sure, but there’s a lot there.

Much as the fervor that surrounded Taylor Swift’s Reputation rollout (a fervor she, admittedly, courted) seemed to make the music secondary, the eagerness to read Timberlake’s new music as distinctly “white” forgot to inquire if his sound corroborated that assessment. At best, such a reading requires we take his rebrand at face value, effectively reifying the same mythology. At worst, it ignores the very multicultural, very black influences that undergird all of American music, including folk and country. It also flattens the discursive possibilities on the critical side when white musicians (continue to) collaborate with black genres. To that end, it almost doesn’t matter whether Timberlake gives us a whitewashed fantasy or self-conscious R&B. The work of the artist is to craft a spectacle and so far he’s largely succeeded, undercutting his own announcement with a sound that feels very usual. Man of the Woods may offer some surprises, but “modern Americana with 808s” sounds no more “white” than anything else we’ve heard from him thus far. Timberlake couldn’t escape black music even if he wanted to.

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