Justin Timberlake is bringing something back. Unfortunately, it’s not sexy—it’s just the sounds of gentrified R&B and funk that turned him into a solo megastar in the early 2000s.
The 39-year-old singer appears all over the Trolls World Tour soundtrack, released Friday, most notably on its two singles: “The Other Side,” a sleek disco track anchored by a throbbing bass line and breezy vocal performance from SZA, and “Don’t Slack,” a summery funk duet with Anderson .Paak. On both songs, Timberlake sounds like a bit player rather than a star, gliding over the beat with his lithe falsetto and tossing off a few effortless vocal runs while his collaborators do the melodic heavy lifting.
This is not surprising: Timberlake has never been prone to vocal histrionics, instead opting to envelop his voice in lush, futuristic sonics courtesy of all-star producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes. It’s also not surprising to hear Timberlake retreat to his comfort zone of R&B and funk after his last album, the electro-Americana hybrid Man of the Woods, underperformed critically and commercially.
Timberlake emerged from the wreckage of his former boy band NSYNC with his 2002 solo debut, Justified, a collection of sensuous dance floor anthems and breakup ballads featuring production from the Neptunes and Timbaland. Justified reinvented the former teen idol as an R&B heartthrob, a persona he refined on 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, which combined R&B, electro-funk, trance and rock to brilliant commercial effect, topping the Billboard 200 and spawning three No. 1 hits in “SexyBack,” “My Love” and “What Goes Around… Comes Around.” Timberlake’s first two albums turned him into an international star, but his liberal borrowing of black music and aesthetics earned him the designation of a “culture vulture” from his detractors. This criticism persisted on 2013’s two-part The 20/20 Experience, which further mined R&B and neo-soul and featured production from Timbaland.
In the lead-up to 2018’s Man of the Woods, the Memphis-born Timberlake teased something resembling a “return to roots,” promising a “modern” twist on “Southern American” music that encompassed rock, blues and country. The singer didn’t completely pivot away from the sounds of his earlier records: Timbaland and the Neptunes helmed production yet again, while the album’s first two singles—the grinding robo-funk of “Filthy” and the trap-pop oddity “Supplies”—could have fit neatly into any part of his discography. But everything about Man of the Woods’ narrative—from the woodsy album cover; to ludicrous song titles like “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Flannel”; to Timberlake’s family sojourn at Big Sky, Montana’s rustic glam community, the Yellowstone Club—suggested Timberlake was reclaiming some sort of pastoral “essence,” à la Paul McCartney’s Ram, that had eluded him on previous records. Never mind that country, folk and Americana are just as rooted in black culture as R&B and funk; Man of the Woods allowed Timberlake to flex his performative whiteness, just as he had capitalized on his proximity to black culture to send his previous albums into the stratosphere.
Anyway, it didn’t work. Man of the Woods debuted at No. 1 with 293,000 album-equivalent units, less than a third of The 20/20 Experience’s 968,000 copies, and thus far is Timberlake’s only studio album to not go platinum. Critics showed no mercy either: Pitchfork’s Jamieson Cox called it “a misstep large enough to merit relitigating Justin Timberlake’s status as a pop superstar.” What’s a man of the woods to do when the wilderness fails to yield the level of success to which he’s become accustomed? Easy—go back to where his bread was buttered.
Timberlake isn’t the first white artist to return to black music after ceremoniously shunning it. When Miley Cyrus’ lily-white country-pop album Younger Now tanked, she reunited with Mike Will Made-It—executive producer of her chart-topping 2013 album Bangerz—for a new batch of hip-hop-adjacent songs, one year after disavowing the genre in a Billboard interview. Justin Bieber followed up the explosive EDM and tropical pop bangers of 2015’s Purpose with a collection of R&B slow jams on last month’s Changes. Even Madonna returned to disco and club music on 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor after the folktronica excursions and toothless social commentary of 2003’s American Life failed to woo critics.
There is ample precedent for Timberlake’s shift back to R&B and funk, both in his own career and across pop music history. The other problem, though, is that Timberlake’s latest efforts aren’t very good. “The Other Side” would be a formidable club anthem were it not marred by unbearable cliches (“Back on your feet again, lift your head, hold it high” … “But the grass ain’t always greener on the other side”); if you listen closely, you can hear SZA making a mobile check deposit. Still, it’s light years ahead of “Don’t Slack,” which feels like the product of a Twitter bot that wrote a song after sifting through thousands of “rise and grind” tweets, a collection of hustle-hard platitudes delivered in the laziest possible fashion by Timberlake and Paak. On these new songs, Timberlake sounds like he’s trying to split the difference between the sexy electro-R&B of his early records and the kid-friendly treacle of “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” off the first Trolls soundtrack, which became the biggest hit of his career. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too, but on the Trolls World Tour soundtrack, he does neither.
At 39, Timberlake has been a successful solo artist for nearly half his life. He should also be old enough to know that he can’t get away with the same stunts he pulled in his early twenties just by deploying his “aw, shucks” charm. Social media and a general evolution in the discourse around entertainment have made listeners more attuned to cultural appropriation in art, so when Timberlake recruits several of today’s leading R&B and funk artists to return to the sounds of his early records, people are quick to cry foul. (They were also quick to do so when he repeatedly interrupted his collaborators on live TV while attempting to use African American Vernacular English.) Timberlake’s recent return to funk and R&B is depressingly predictable when looking at his career arc, but the mediocrity of these efforts is an unfortunate surprise.
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