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Why People Think Justin Timberlake Is Going to Make a Country Album

It’s still early for 2018 forecasts, but here’s one that could go either way: Country star Justin Timberlake.

TMZ reports this morning that Timberlake has moved to lock down trademarks on two phrases, either of which could be the title of an upcoming project: “Man of the Woods” and “Fresh Leaves.” Neither offers too much information on the surface, but neither is likely to shut down long-running speculation that Timberlake’s next act could be the second reinvention of his career. Something a little more… rootsy, perhaps?

Speculation about Timberlake going country dates back to 2015, two years after his most recent solo album The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2. By Timberlake’s standard, 2 of 2 underperformed on the singles charts: Only the milquetoast acoustic ballad “Not a Bad Thing” reached the top 10. Timberlake then showed up at the Country Music Awards in fall 2015, appearing alongside Album of the Year winner Chris Stapleton for a two-song performance. One of those songs, 2 of 2’s vaguely country-ish “Drink You Away,” was subsequently promoted to country radio, more than two years after its original release.

Speaking to TMZ at the time, Timberlake’s longtime producer Timbaland cited “Drink You Away” as an example of “the new generation of country.” “We always wanted to do country music,” he said of himself and Timberlake, adding that he personally was already “posted up in Nashville” to work on more.

Two years and one big Trolls detour later, the pieces of a new Timberlake album appear to be coming into place. Justin himself teased something “on the way” this spring; over the summer, longtime collaborater Pharrell revealed that he was involved. Expectations rose further still when Timberlake was announced as the 2018 Super Bowl halftime performer, and just three weeks ago, Timbaland told Rolling Stone a new Timberlake album was near completion. “The music we just made? It’s gonna put him on another plateau,” Timbaland said.

Meanwhile—and perhaps tellingly—Timberlake’s headlining set at this fall’s Pilgrimage Festival in his home state of Tennessee featured a repeat appearance by Stapleton. If one were, hypothetically, hoping to launch internationally famous pop/R&B artist Justin Timberlake into an Americana-inspired next chapter, there probably would be worse places to do it than the halftime of the Super Bowl, still the most-watched television broadcast in the U.S. Lady Gaga tried a similar maneuver last year, with a flag-emblazoned halftime appearance supporting the recently released Joanne. Timberlake presumably hopes his country experimentation will go over a bit better.