The comeback: It’s an art. From the initial scuddlebud that piques the interests of fans and non-fans alike, to the hype-inducing, typically mysterious marketing campaign, to the content itself, an artist’s comeback is best received when all facets of the release are well executed. When done poorly, a comeback can leave fans disappointed, unenthused and in denial (i.e. Britney Spears’s Glory — I didn’t even know she dropped a comeback album in 2016). When done well, a comeback can shatter the music world, reinvigorating the passion of a fanbase by reminding listeners of an artist’s unparalleled and natural talent. An example? Justin Timberlake and his highly anticipated album, Man of the Woods.
With a teaser trailer depicting the wind-stricken wilderness and advertising a return to Timberlake’s Tenn. roots, fans had little idea what to expect from Woods. He couldn’t possibly be releasing a country album, right? The project’s first single, “Filthy,” confused listeners even more, boasting a sexy, abrasive, future-funk sound that produced mixed feelings and didn’t seem to mirror the wholesome, woodsy vibe JT was marketing. However, one listen through will put these concerns at bay; Woods is sonically superb. Throughout the 16-track record, Timberlake manages to successfully incorporate layers of that good ole country comfort on which he was raised with modern, bass-heavy sounds, all while maintaining the tight groove and impressive vocals that shot him to R&B and pop superstardom in the 2000s.
The former NSYNC heartthrob best described the album’s sound in a behind-the-scenes video, labeling it “modern Americana with 808s.” Timberlake built nearly every song around guitar and country melodies to hone a feeling of “heritage,” later enlisting Pharrell, Timbaland and others to masterfully blend those sounds with pop and hip hop.
This unique combination is likely most evident in the album’s second single, “Supplies.” The song’s melody could easily be accompanied by a banjo and a two-step stomp for a linedance at the hottest barn in Ala., but it’s instead met with a booming trap beat that Future could murder, and in true JT fashion, the hook is embedded in the listener’s head after just one listen (Tyler, the Creator will be the first to tell you that the track absolutely bumps). This genre-bending trend can even be seen through the album’s features: R&B sensation Alicia Keys adds soul to “Morning Light,” and country star Chris Stapleton immediately follows with country twang on “Say Something.”
Timberlake has never been known for conscious lyricism or enlightening messages (see: “SexyBack” or “Suit & Tie”), so don’t bother looking for that here; his brand is simply good, groovy music, and that doesn’t change with Woods. With that said, listeners can still take away one major theme from this vanguard album: the fluidity of genre. Timberlake, a white man who made waves in a genre largely dominated by African American artists, has never been one to stick to stereotypes, but this album goes a step further to demonstrate that even country and hip hop — seemingly polar opposites in both music and culture — can be united on the grounds of the feel-good emotions they can respectively produce.
Timberlake touched on this idea in 2016 in a string of defensive and explanatory tweets after receiving backlash to his comments on Jesse Williams’s Humanitarian Award acceptance speech at the BET Awards. After initially sharing via Twitter that he was inspired by Williams’s words, Timberlake responded to accusations by one tweeter that his success was due to appropriation of Black culture, tweeting, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” Predictably, this comment received major backlash, as many viewed it as blindness to Timberlake’s potential privilege as a white male in the historically Black R&B music world. These criticisms are absolutely valid; however, perhaps what Timberlake was trying to articulate is that there is more in music that unites people than divides people. Man of the Woods, with its bright guitar riffs and heavy bass drops, is a properly delivered version of this message.