The Internet is a funny place.
For the past two months, it seems like everyone has a hot take on the career of Justin Timberlake and his fifth solo album, Man of the Woods. Hard core R&B fans chastised him for abandoning the genre for what they presumed to be a country project, Janet Jackson’s are fans STILL are out for blood following the Dreaded 2004 Super Bowl Incident and, of course, the Black Twitter contingent are steadily slapping JT with the “culture vulture” label.
A fraction of that criticism is, well, justified. Pardon the pun. But most of it is pretty overblown.
Besides, I’m just here to discuss the music. And after the release of Man of the Woods’ three questionable lead tracks – the ear-splitting electro funk of “Filthy,” the obnoxiously brazen “Supplies” and the soothing but repetitive “Say Something” – there are legit reasons to question JT’s claim to the pop throne instead of rehashing stuff he apologized for 15 years ago.
But just when you doubt Justin, he gives you another reason to love him again.
I mean, in my case, anyway. Y’all are some harsh critics.
Here’s the good news – if you’ve endured “Supplies” and “Filthy,” you’ve already heard the worst of Man of the Woods. And while JT recently shut down the conclusion-jumpers by outright saying Man of the Woods is NOT a country album, most of the production is country inspired.
Think Bubba Sparxxx’s awesome Deliverance record, which was merely hip-hop record with a Southern twang. Man of the Woods is pop incarnation of that premise.
The album’s production is almost exclusively handled by the Neptunes (with Timbaland, Danja and others helping out in spots) and they certainly sound like they’re having fun. “Midnight Summer Jam” nails the country concept with the greatest success – fiddles, heavy hand claps and even a harmonica bring this track to life with an energy that transcends genres.
“Breeze off the Pond” is another keeper, with Justin’s effortless crooning meshing with the addictive production. “Montana” might be an easier adjustment for JT’s fanbase – sure, the guitar licks are there but the bubbling baseline makes it a lot more assessable than some of the album’s other offerings. For instance, “Flannel,” probably the most pure country song here, likely will cause a lot of noses to turn northward but it’s actually pretty well sung and strongly produced.
While the album intends to be a homage to JT’s Southern heritage, it ain’t all about haystacks and cowboy hats. JT teams with Alicia Keys for “Morning Light,” a duet that pays tribute to the more soulful side of his Memphis roots. It’s right out of the Stax Records playbook.
Man of the Woods certainly isn’t the disaster the naysayers predicted but it’s not without flaws – in fact, the album’s biggest drawback is that even with its shiny Southern veneer and imaginative production, it just isn’t that interesting.
“Sauce” is a fun hoedown in an Uptown Funk-y sorta way but it’s just not very memorable. The woozy title track’s instrumentation is cool, wobbling around like it’s drunk off moonshine, but again, there’s not much to remember once the track fades out. It’s even hard to muster up reasons to revisit “Young Man,” a tender tribute to JT’s son. Touching? Yeah. Replay value? Not really.
Man of the Woods may have the unfortunate distinction of being JT’s weakest LP to date but honestly not by much, trailing former bottom-runger The 20/20 Experience Part 2 by just a hair. The album’s concept is admirable but it’s padded with a lot of filler. Still, you certainly have to give JT credit for his spirit of reinvention.
But those good intentions won’t stop this album from being a tough sell for even JT’s most diehard fans – not to mention the ones who are still mad at him about … whatever.
Poor JT can’t win for losing.
That kinda sounds like a country song.
Best tracks: “Midnight Summer Jam,” “Montana,” “Breeze Off the Pond”
3.5 stars out of 5