Somewhere around year five without new music from Justin Timberlake post–FutureSex/LoveSounds, most fans had given up on ever getting a full-length album from him again. Having been bitten by the acting bug, he starred in no less than a dozen films, almost all of them middling or forgettable while occasionally making guest appearances on other stars’ songs, almost all of those middling or forgettable.
And then in 2013, Timberlake dropped not one, but two albums with The 20/20 Experience and The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2. The albums felt, on the surface, ambitious—most songs spun out into long, radio-unfriendly instrumental vamps. But outside of a few genuinely memorable songs (most notably “Mirrors”), the sprawling five- and six-minute tracks ultimately felt more like an attempt to disguise what most of his fans had feared: J.T. just isn’t that into being a pop star anymore. The young man whose work with Timbaland once garnered comparisons to Michael Jackson’s work with Quincy Jones now seemed to have zero interest in innovating in the worlds of pop and R&B.
Timberlake’s first new solo music since The 20/20 Experience three years ago plays like the final nail in the coffin of his pop ambitions. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is a perfectly fine dance tune, trading on the disco-flavored Daft Punk–lite that has been infused in plenty of songs from the past few years. You will most certainly hear it everywhere this summer, whether you’re shopping inside of a Target or hanging out at an oceanside beach bar or at your local singles event. And this fall, you’re definitely going to hear it if you’ve got kids 10 and under, because you’ll inevitably find yourself having to sit through the horrific-looking Trolls, which is the exact reason we have new Timberlake music in the first place. (He stars in the film; he’s still trying to make J.T. the Actor happen, it seems.)
But will you actively seek out this song in the same way you did “My Love” or “Señorita” or “Mirrors”? Probably not. Because this Max Martin–produced pop confection is about as bland as one can get—it’s Jason Derulo generic, not the Weeknd distinctive. Which is fine. Not every artist is going to maintain that creative hunger or passion in the way that Kanye West or Beyoncé have over the course of more than a decade; most eventually burn out. And if Timberlake is no longer interested in pushing the boundaries of pop and R&B, it’s his right as an artist to pivot into other things. For fans, there is a potential silver lining: Rumors abound that he is working on a new album, and he’s been pictured working in the studio with both Timbaland and country music group Little Big Town. Between that and his beloved duet with Chris Stapleton at the Country Music Association Awards, maybe the Tennessee native is finally going to tap into his country roots for a full-blown country LP? Perhaps his musical ambitions haven’t completely dissipated after all—they’ve just found a new outlet.