Review: Timberlake tanks crossover in “Man of the Woods”

Justin Timberlake performs during the Super Bowl halftime show Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Every so often, an established mainstream artist proudly announces they are returning to their roots.

In recent years, we’ve heard Lady Gaga trade provocative synth pop for introspective piano ballads, Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish retire his post-grunge flannel and opt for cowboy boots and Southern charm and Miley Cyrus perform a complete 180 from near-nude faux hip-hop to conservative faux country.

When Memphis-born Renaissance man Justin Timberlake made the announcement of his roots album, “Man of the Woods,” we knew that such a transformation could only go one of two ways — it would prove Timberlake to be one of the most versatile artists of the 21st century, or it would be a complete and utter flop.

After the album announcement, fans expected pleasant acoustic folk music from Timberlake. When the album was released earlier this month, the lead single “Filthy” was about as far away from that expectation as possible.

On this sexed-up track, we hear Timberlake stumble through trite lyrics like “haters gon’ say it’s fake” over a bassy dubstep beat that might have been cool five years ago.

The most enticing parts of Timberlake’s artistry, namely impressive vocal performances and sexy dance beats, are nowhere to be found on this track. This single sounds more like a man pushing 40 attempting to connect with the youth than JT’s usual brilliance.

The two singles that follow do not offer any more hope for an authentic sound. Further along on track seven, “Supplies” provides a confusing combination of acoustic guitars and trap beats as Timberlake struggles to sound like anything but untoasted white bread while attempting to cop a Migos-esque triplet flow.

“Say Something” comes a little closer to the roots sound Timberlake had promised, featuring critically acclaimed country artist Chris Stapleton. Stapleton outperforms Timberlake on this acoustic-driven single, breathing life into lyrics that ironically say nothing of substance.

Timberlake has always prided himself on being an innovator, from the time he released his debut single, “Cry Me a River,” in 2002. Musical genre fusion is a high-risk, high-reward venture — spawning successes like the Arctic Monkeys’ 50 Cent-meets-Black Sabbath album “AM” and Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-infused Gangsta-Funk masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

It seems on “Man of the Woods,” Timberlake has stepped too far out of his comfort zone, attempting to fuse country and contemporary electronic music.

Claiming this album leaves a lot to be desired is a bold understatement. It’s 16 tracks have very few high points and a plethora of lows. Many of Timberlake’s attempts at Southern-charm-meets-hip-hop fail to leave an impression — most tracks are either forgettable or memorably bad.

“Man of the Woods” is littered with ill-placed samples and spoken word interludes combined with sloppy beats that sound like Florida Georgia Line playing over 808s that belong in a Kanye West track. Songs like “Sauce” and “Wave” are among the most poorly crafted and are almost impossible to listen to.

The only perceivable high point of the album is Timberlake’s collaboration with fellow has-been Alicia Keys on the uplifting “Morning Light.” This track is pure pop, reminiscent of a stripped down Jason Mraz song. It’s the only one off the album in which the instrumentals do not distract from the vocals, and both vocalists give commendable performances.

As a whole, “Man of the Woods” is a complete misstep for Timberlake. His attempt at a country-electronic genre fusion is disingenuous and a major departure from his prowess as a pop hit maker. The album has nearly none of the appealing elements of JT’s previous work as a rhythm and blues powerhouse, and it could prove to be a fatal mistake in his music career.

As the man who once brought sexy back has learned, what goes around does not always come around.

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