On Man of the Woods, Justin Timberlake Sets Out to Say Something and Ends Up Saying Nothing at All

The Super Bowl entertainer is an expert song-and-dance man, but in his recent work, he risks becoming nothing more than his own tribute act.

A collage of Justin Timberlake on the cover of his new album and performing at the Super Bowl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by RCA and Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Not unlike Bruno Mars, whose Grammy sweep was the subject of last week’s cycle of music-world consternation, Justin Timberlake is a song-and-dance man who’s been flashing gleaming smiles and executing fancy footwork for crowds since he was an adolescent. Theirs is an honorable tradition, but it rarely meshes with concocting statements of social significance. Indeed, most such hoofers and belters are better off not playing activist unless they have substantial things to say. Still, having turned 37 last week, Timberlake is five years older than Mars and has been famous much longer, and it’s his own history that’s catching up with him.

He’s seen to have coasted on a pillow of white-boy entitlement, buoyed by his borrowings from black music, through too many danger zones where people of lesser cultural privilege suffered the fallout. His 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” incident with Janet Jackson is only Exhibit A. Though his malfeasance does get exaggerated, his consistently awkward and muted responses don’t help his cause. However you judge the moral hazard, how long can even the most crowd-pleasing entertainers dodge risk before becoming mere tribute acts to what originally made them appealing?

In many ways that tribute act is the Timberlake we hear on his new album, Man of the Woods, and in every way it’s the one the world witnessed this weekend in his return to the Super Bowl. This halftime show was a typical Timberlake tour stop condensed into 20 minutes, a medley of hits and fan favorites that was as much about dance and spectacle (lasers, mirrors, runways) as about music. And Timberlake is good at dance and spectacle. While he’s not the NFL’s first pop guest to nod to football tradition by featuring a marching band—Prince did in 2007, for one—this Southern boy seemed particularly at home among the drum majors.

Speaking of Prince, as has been widely debated, the late Minneapolis icon’s image was projected on a sheet Sunday night in his hometown stadium so that Timberlake could “duet” with him on “I Would Die 4 U.” While it was quick, and more respectful than the advance rumors of a Prince hologram threatened, it still contradicted Prince’s own sentiments about posthumous collaborations (he called them “demonic”). A song with “die” in the title was an iffy choice, and given the pair’s antagonistic history, would the Purple One have played along if he were still around to decide? Likewise, while Janet Jackson wasn’t present in person or in pictures, it was a double-edged gesture for Timberlake briefly to reprise the song that started their Super Bowl troubles, “Rock Your Body,” and then call “stop!” just before the line at which the garment glitch occurred in 2004. No doubt he meant well, but it’s typically tone-challenged of Timberlake to think a wink can heal a grievance.

Many viewers may not have known that calling “stop!” is a longtime J.T. stage shtick. There were some issues with the vocal sound mix in Minnesota, but he is also in the habit of leaving a lot of the key hooks in his songs to his background singers (and to audience singalongs), the better to get his dance steps in and to shout exhortations to his band and fans. (He also seems to eschew prerecorded vocal tracks.) The approach makes perfect sense in an arena of hardcore Justin fans who are happy to scream out the lyrics, as you can see in the delectable Jonathan Demme–directed 2016 concert film, Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids. But for other listeners, it’s confusing when song choruses are lost and replaced by banter. Timberlake increasingly gives the impression of being more the amiable host of his songs, the master of ceremonies, than the committed singer he was a decade back.

That sense of J.T. as emcee is also to the detriment of Man of the Woods, released this weekend to coincide with the Super Bowl show. It’s an album primarily about the pleasures of marriage and family (he’s a new parent along with his wife, actor Jessica Biel), and although it’s as meticulously constructed and polished as you would expect from an artist of Timberlake’s work ethic—not to mention his longtime collaborators Timbaland and the Neptunes, the primary co-producers—most of the songs, at their core, seem like afterthoughts, just footnotes to his life. The vocal cameos from Biel and their son, Silas (whose sylvan name inspired the “of the woods” label), are like direct admissions that J.T.’s hit his dad-pop years.

That doesn’t have to be an insult. Pop is eternally youthful, but people aren’t, and artists should be encouraged to age with grace. But whether out of distraction or fear, Timberlake equivocates too much for Man of the Woods to convey any captivating sense of change. He was closer, in some ways, with his previous two albums, The 20/20 Experience and its sequel, in which he dealt with the maturity issue by adopting a throwback, Vegas-lounge, stage-pro persona perfectly fitting his strengths. Those albums (like this one) diffused their effect with excessive length, but the intention was at least legible.

When Timberlake released a short trailer for Man of the Woods in January that featured a lot of sweaters, long grass, and campfires, the internet jumped to the conclusion that he’d ditched his “Suit and Tie” to make a pastoral country album. This came with genre-biased presumptions that the result would also be corny, even reactionary. Everyone then seemed bamboozled when first single “Filthy” turned out to be a typical J.T. funk workout. Few seemed to ask why they’d assumed country and funk were incompatible. That’s not what you find in the musical history of Timberlake’s hometown of Memphis, with its revolutionary 1950s and 1960s record labels Sun and Stax, where white musicians worked with black artists, twang met groove, and rural and urban commingled. Nor in contemporary Nashville country, where digital beats and R&B-influenced vocals are everywhere. So there was potential for this album to envision a 21st-century Stax sound, braiding together Timberlake’s many roots.

He’s referred to the more narrow concept of “Americana with 808s,” and there are glimpses of that in the songs he co-writes here with gruff country star Chris Stapleton. There’s their duet “Say Something” (a song that might be a reply to online callout culture, camouflaged by the lyric’s deep devotion to, well, not saying anything), the Alicia Keys duet “Morning Light,” and “The Hard Stuff,” an affecting grown-folks love song that could drop into today’s country radio right beside Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt.

When Timberlake enters that territory without Stapleton, though, you get tractor wrecks such as “Flannel,” a vapid Christian fellowship song about cozy leisure wear, and “Livin’ Off the Land,” a mess of country-living clichés that winds up as a millionaire virtue-splaining at a working-class strawman. It sits very uncomfortably alongside songs about luxury couples’ vacations such as “Wave,” a mercilessly burbling blend of Jack Johnson and “Octopus’s Garden” in which the sonic top and bottom seem so shakily linked they give me vertigo, and whose true purpose seems to be to get audiences to “wave” their arms during future concerts.

All of the above have very little relationship with “Midnight Summer Jam,” “Higher, Higher,” or “Montana,” terrific, groove-heavy, dance-floor numbers that could be from any Justin Timberlake album (or a Michael Jackson album, or a Daft Punk album, etc.). And there are a handful more semisuccesses and semiduds, with a puzzling predilection for digitally spliced pseudo–doo-wop vocal frameworks, which mostly seem like Pharrell Williams amusing himself. And then there is a spoken-word piece in which Jessica Biel solemnly intones about the erotic semiotics of putting on J.T.’s worn-out shirts.

Timberlake’s always been a weak lyricist, but most of the words on this album sound like they were scribbled out on the backs of endorsement contracts during dance rehearsals or, as one song positions the couple, stoned in a canoe. The repeated rhapsodies on “Sauce” about the sensuous meeting of “your pink” and “my purple” are unfortunately not atypical. (Paging the bad sex writing awards.)

That said, Man of the Woods isn’t a bad album, unless you’re paying too much attention. It’s usually an error to expect album-length coherence from a song-and-dance man, just as it is with a pop diva. They’ve got other agendas, to show off their skills in a variety of modes and provide diverse soundtracks for different moods. That’s why I was content to applaud Bruno Mars for his singles Grammy but found his album win out of place. Still, in the case of Timberlake, a man who aptly recently tweeted that he didn’t understand the phrase have your cake and eat it too, he repeatedly makes lunges in the direction of album-as-statement auteurism and lands in a muddy nowhere. Maybe after more than 20 years of pop professionalism, he should take a real break, hang with the fam on the ranch, and enjoy little Silas’ progression from sapling into mighty oak. Then get back to us, when he’s come up with a reason to.