There comes a time in every man’s life where there’s a need for a change. It’s a special occurrence when the caesar transitions to a fade, the flannels and sherpa-lined trucker jackets give way to peacoats, silver chains, and Air Force 1s, and Chris Stapleton is replaced by Meek Mill, SZA, and Anderson .Paak. Or, in Justin Timberlake’s case, the time has come for a return to a change he made decades ago. In Timberlake’s latest reinvention, the city mouse who sequestered himself in the wilderness returns to the metaphorical metropolis to reclaim some magic. Across three songs, Meek Mill’s “Believe”, SZA’s “The Other Side”, and .Paak’s “Don’t Slack” ( the latter two are both from the upcoming Trolls World Tour soundtrack), Justin Timberlake has sonically and aesthetically backed away from the country-baiting tinges of 2018’s Man of the Woods back to the hip-hop bread and R&B butter (with a sprinkle of disco and funk) that built his decade-spanning career.
On “Believe”, he sings “You can break my body / But you can’t lock the soul of a man down” next to Mill with as much Caucasian soul as he can muster. In the video for “The Other Side”, Timberlake’s boy-band-honed dance moves are back, along with the falsetto that soundtracked many an early-aughts dancefloor. For “Don’t Slack” Timberlake told Genius he was looking for, “a sixties’ vibe with it to give it a little something vintage”. The new Timberlake looks very much like the old Timberlake. It just doesn’t sound quite as revolutionary this time around.
Upon the release of Man of the Woods, Zane Lowe told Timberlake that it was “the closest I feel that we get to you as a person”. “I would agree with that for sure”, Timberlake responded. “It’s definitely the most introspective record I’ve made. I think every album that I’ve done before that was about aspiration, and how can I pay homage to my influences”. Timberlake isn’t wrong. The beauty of his first two solo albums, 2002’s Justified and 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, is how much they’re indebted to the black collaborators and artists who created and inspired it. To Timberlake’s credit, he’s a talented curator, but if you remove the most crucial producers and artists from both albums — Pharrell, Timbaland, Danja, Pusha T, Malice, T.I., Three 6 Mafia, will.i.am — you’d be left with less than a skeleton. On Man of the Woods, he brought Timbaland, Danja, and the Neptunes towards him, rather than the other way around. Timberlake’s strengths have always stemmed from a chameleonic ability to make music he loved his own: If Michael Jackson hadn’t allegedly heard The Neptunes-produced “SuperThug” by Noreaga, request songs from the duo, and later turn their proposals down, then Justified would be without three of its biggest hits (“Rock Your Body”, “Señorita”, and “Like I Love You”). “SexyBack” seemed so inspired by Prince that the legendary artist reportedly said, “For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left”, which was then construed as a clear shot at Timberlake and Timbaland.
Timberlake is far from the first pop star to return to his roots, then double back. In 2018, Miley Cyrus made a similar move back to black music after her country-lite album, Younger Now, failed to make a cultural dent. Justin Bieber’s latest album, Changes, finds the Canadian singer returning to classic R&B after the EDM flourishes of 2015’s Purpose were no longer en vogue (that was after his long and complicated flirtation with a full-on Bieber rap album). While Timberlake’s contributions to “Believe”, “The Other Side”, and “Don’t Slack” are a return to style, they aren’t quite a return to form. With a few more swings, though, he may have another “SexyBack” yet.