For Justin Timberlake, the way forward is in the past.
In January, Justin Timberlake told Zane Lowe of Beats 1 that after being labeled a pop artist despite his best attempts at crafting R&B records, he had a moment of clarity. "I just felt like, Let me do whatever the fuck I want. I'm going to do whatever I want."
That "whatever" came in the form of 2018's Man of the Woods. The reviews of the record were middling and mixed, with many critics commenting that at the very least, the album is uneven. It blends sounds from the past with experimental ideas from the future. It's a weird amalgam of styles that never truly decides what it wants to be, so for many fans, it's a difficult and disappointing listen.
In his review, the Guardian's Alexis Petridis commented, "The good bits are great, the bad bits best avoided, but in a pop world where originality isn't much encouraged, there's something really laudable about the intention behind it, and its author's willingness to think outside the box." Meanwhile, USA Today's Maeve McDermott said, "Man of the Woods, while certainly not 2018's worst album, is further evidence that Timberlake is far from the pop music innovator he once was."
But here's the thing: We don't need Timberlake to be an innovator. This is the man who brought us "Bye Bye Bye," "Cry Me a River," and "My Love." Why can't he bring "Sexy Back"? He's even good for a couple of laughs. As offensively clever and funny as it is, "Dick in a Box" is a legitimately good pop song.
In fact, if Timberlake, a Memphis native, had decided to dig deep into the blues, jazz, and rockabilly of his city's glorious musical history, that would have felt undeniably more natural than the electro-noise of songs such as "Filth." His country crossover hit with Chris Stapleton, "Say Something," was recently nominated for a CMT Music Award, indicating that if Timberlake wished, he and his tremendously talented band, the Tennessee Kids, could easily join the pop-country elite.
Or he could stick to what he knows.
Like many smart R&B artists, JT based his solo career on the work of MJ. Artists such as Bruno Mars and the Weeknd owe their sound to the King of Pop (with a solid assist from Prince). But as an adult, Michael Jackson had two distinct phases musically: the trio of
With Man of the Woods, Timberlake entered the perilous, untested waters of Jackson's Dangerous period, but less successfully. Man of the Woods seems an appropriate choice for the title of this record. Although Timberlake titled the album for his son Silas (whose name is Latin for "of the forest"), many times throughout the record his sound seems lost somewhere among the trees. It's an incomplete, meandering search with only a small batch of songs that work, and work well.
Does this mean JT is a failure in any way? Hardly. He would sell out stadiums even if his next release were a ten-track album of nothing but silence. That's how much fandom his boy-band days and early-'00s pop mastery — along with his genuinely endearing persona — have earned him. From his aforementioned dives into comedy with the Lonely Island and SNL alum Andy
Still, he clearly needs a jump-start. The question is, how does he achieve that?
In April, Timberlake reunited with his 'NSync bandmates for a ceremony commemorating their newly minted star on the Walk of Fame. An actual, full-blown musical reunion is, at the moment, a pipe dream. JC, Joey, Chris, and Lance have all expressed a desire to don the jean jackets and awful haircuts once again, but it is and has always been Timberlake holding up this particularly boy-band fantasy from becoming a reality.
Still, if history has taught us anything, it's to never say never. If Fleetwood Mac and Guns N' Roses can do it, surely a group like 'NSync, which broke up amicably and somewhat quietly, can get back together — especially now that JT has hit a lull in his career.
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Consider the example of English pop singer Robbie Williams. After the disappointment of 2006's Rudebox, Williams rejoined his former boy band, Take That. Back together for the first time in more than a decade, the original lineup crushed the charts — their reunion triple-platinum album, Progress, became the fastest-selling record of the century. Williams immediately quit the band again after touring Progress and, refreshed and reenergized from his stint with
Maybe Timberlake can follow in Williams' footsteps. Or maybe he can return to his roots as an R&B heartthrob, a Michael Jackson protégé, or a good old-fashioned blues-loving country boy without enlisting the assistance of his former bandmates. Either way, for JT, the way forward appears to be rooted in the past. Though there's something to be said about the evolution of artists, there's also great value in the old and slightly amended adage: If it ain't broke, don't fix it (and definitely don't make it worse).