Pop star J.T. a ‘Man of the Woods’? Right…

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Jamie Glenn

Nashville Tennessee native Justin Timberlake returns with this fifth studio album, “Man of the Woods,” a follow-up to 2013’s “20/20 Experience.” With two Super Bowl performances now under his belt, the first in 2004 and the second during this year’s halftime show, this ’90s heartthrob attempts to transcend his pop scene image to become an everyday “family man.” But can J.T. pull off the rustic side of
romance?

Let’s take it back to Timberlake’s early 2000s effort “Justified,” in which he teamed up with The Neptunes, a production duo consisting of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. The pair returns to contribute to Timberlake’s latest effort. The title of this album “Man of the Woods” could give listeners the impression that Timberlake was looking to return with a more acoustic, rustic sound, but instead listeners are given a mix of electronic, jazz pop-mixed jams that lead listeners down a number of experimental paths. This experimentation is interesting, especially with tracks like “Midnight Summer Jam,” but the production and lyricism don’t sound cohesive together.

“Man of the Woods” makes the most sense when listening with the idea that Timberlake tried to incorporate elements of his early 2000s pop sound, such as those heard on earlier releases like “Justified” and “Future, Love/Sex sounds.” It’s a sound that we’ve heard for over a decade now, a side of him that plays it too safe, a side that shows little diversity in sound and growth for Timberlake as an artist.
A handful of tracks throughout this record feel off, perhaps due to poor lyrical content or a mixture of awkward instrumentation, or sometimes both. Tracks like “Sauce,” “Wave” and “Higher Higher” may be the classic Timberlake sound that longtime listeners care for, but for casual listeners, I see tracks of this nature to be respective sound that we’ve heard from Timberlake many times before, giving the bulk of this new record a low replay
factor.

More acoustically driven, softer tone tracks like “Hers (Interlude),” “Flannel” and “The Hard Stuff” send a more authentic vibe to listeners, a vibe that is more marketable given Timberlake’s current status as a father and family man, although these may not make for the most theatrical stage performances. During Timberlake’s most recent and over the top Super Bowl performance, it wouldn’t have hurt him to dial back on the choreography in order to focus more on his sound delivery, but by no means should he ever stand still on stage.

The track “Young Man” is a tribute to Timberlake’s son Silas, that works—almost. It could’ve struck a more personal chord if the tone would’ve matched the the personal lyricism. But the song does follow Timberlake’s easy-going style R&B and theme of the record as a whole, mostly.

This latest release may alienate some listeners, but should resonate with Timberlake’s longtime fans who are used to his smooth R&B style that tries to solute to old listeners but doesn’t adhere to the original sound that made Timberlake so popular. Timberlake’s most recent efforts feel untamed. It’s a record that’s trying to create too many sounds at once, from the latest callbacks like “Filthy” and “Montana” and “Supplies” to sounds previously heard on The “20/20 experience” that carry a more theatrical jazz R&B vibe.

This experimentation doesn’t completely fail Timberlake though, the album is redeemed slightly by songs like the title track “Man of the Woods,” a catchy track that knows its place but doesn’t veer off course by incorporating sounds of modern pop and soul that Timberlake is most known for. Country singer Chris Stapleton’s contributions on the radio-ready track “Say Something” is exactly what Timberlake should strive to create more of in the future. These more lyrically controlled tracks offer substance to listeners, and that’s what Timberlake will need if he hopes to stay relevant in years to come.