Just over a month in to the new year, Justin Timberlake has already taken the lead in 2018’s biggest album race. Even among releases by Camila Cabello and Migos, Timberlake’s album “Man of the Woods” has definitely been the album with the most buzz surrounding it. Timberlake has hyped the album as his most personal yet, alluding to his wife, actress Jessica Biel, his son and his home as inspirations in the recording process. The title of some of the songs, including "Young Man," refer directly to his son, so it didn’t seem like a stretch to think that Timberlake would create music that went along with his new familial persona.
Going into the release, Pharrell Williams hyped the album as “earthy,” indicating Timberlake would be striving for a more acoustic, homely sound in the same style as bands like Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver. When listening to the album, you don’t get that impression. The first track, “Filthy,” resembles more of the R&B pop that Timberlake has been known for in the past. He takes on the critics early by singing “Haters gonna say it’s fake” on repeat. Timberlake alludes to his home state of Tennessee deeply on tracks like “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Flannel.” The music is mainly about his wife and son, his point being that wherever they are, he’s at home.
Timberlake’s intimacy is one of his strongest assets as a performer; however, his ideas and creativity are lacking. Even when he becomes enlightened, he can’t seem to make anything new.
Timberlake’s team up with Chris Stapleton on “Say Something” is one of the bright spots because it sounds like the kind of music you thought he would be releasing. Timberlake’s collaboration with Alicia Keys on “Morning Light” works well with its catchy, polished arrangement, but it could have excelled far better with less sampling and more of a stripped-down approach.
Not so coincidentally, Timberlake’s Super Bowl Halftime performance was scheduled just days after “Man of the Woods’” was released.
Compared to the last time Timberlake performed at the Super Bowl, this one was far less controversial. Timberlake strutted his stuff on as many stages and platforms as the stadium could provide. He opened with “Filthy,” but stuck mostly to the crowd-pleasing hits he’s accumulated over the years. He went from the field to the stands to take a “Super Bowl selfie” and took the time to give Prince a purple-patterned tribute while in the late artist’s hometown.
Timberlake knows how to put on a show, though he tended to play it safe. He had energy to spare but couldn’t bring the same level of excitement that Kendrick Lamar accomplished last month at the College Football Playoff. No guest performers were on hand, which really stung if you chose to ignore Timberlake’s pregame comments and were praying for an *NSYNC reunion.
Timberlake’s ability to effortlessly put on a fun show did not go unnoticed by those watching at home.
“He didn’t disappoint with his dancing,” third-year psychology student Matthew Rickel said. “The singing was pretty good, I thought it was really neat how he went into the crowd.”
The salute to a certain music legend was one of the bright spots of the performance.
“I really appreciated the Prince tribute,” Rickel said.
I would give “Man of the Woods” a C+. Timberlake continues to add his undeniable charisma to anything he touches and brings in some of the best people in the business to be part of it. He just can’t seem to figure out how far off the grid he is willing to go. He doesn’t risk any form of alienation in his music, even though those are the kinds of ideas that got me excited for the album in the first place. Timberlake is at peace at this point in his life and career, but let’s hope he can take the necessary artistic risks that would allow him to perform at the Super Bowl for a third time.