If “Filthy,” the lead single from Justin Timberlake’s new album, feels like a curveball, it’s only because we tricked ourselves into thinking that we knew what was coming. And, honestly, we probably still do—Man of the Woods, his new album that nobody really needs and might not even want, is studded with song titles that seem to promise the country-indebted record we’re all expecting: “Flannel,” “Livin’ Off the Land,” “Supplies” etc. In any event, “Filthy” is not about the state of one’s boots after an afternoon spent chopping wood to haul back to the cabin for the night’s fire, and is instead about the one thing that has always most electrified Timberlake (it’s sex).
To that end, “Filthy” swings Timberlake back to the animating taboo of his career pretty literally, with an itchy funk beat that recalls not Prince, really, but instead any number of contemporary Prince revivalists: Miguel, who boiled purple down into a similar sludge at times on his album Wildheart, and Jason Derulo, who is basically selling America this same sort of scrubbed clean version of stripped-down at this very moment. Timberlake doesn’t do anything novel with this framework, which isn’t the best thing, obviously, but also isn’t the worst—there are some wormy melodies that slither slowly out of this song, leaving a glistening trail of goo on Timbaland and Danja’s metallic production.
Still, there’s lots of other stuff, too, almost all of it unneeded: a bombastic arena rock intro that could be swallowed if it didn’t return uninvited in the middle of the song; the constant repetition of the phrase “Haters gon’ say it’s fake / so real,” a reference to a meme that makes no sense within the context of the song; lyrics like “And what you gonna do with all that meat? / Cookin’ up a mean servin’.” Timberlake is clearly still enjoying a 12-year high off of “SexyBack,” a supremely corny song that could have been a huge embarrassment but nonetheless cemented him as the preeminent pop star of a time. But timing matters a lot: Timberlake is no longer a young person who we ask to figure himself out in real time for our amusement. The friction that existed within “SexyBack”—a fresh-faced teeny-bopper morphing himself into an American sex symbol—no longer exists, and as such, “Filthy” is frictionless. All the consciously weird lyrics and tics inserted into this song don’t heighten the contradictions like they did back then; instead, they come off as what they are—a guy in his mid-30s trying just a little too hard.
This all stands in contrast, actually, to Timberlake’s comeback single before this one. The last time that people expected Timberlake to bring sexy back again, he gave us “Suit & Tie,” a weirdly light and frivolous single about the pleasure of, uh, dressing up real nice to go out and dance to soul music. That song eventually won me over in a big way: it was an unhurried and unfussy composition, confident in itself and not trying all that hard. There’s enough to like melodically speaking on “Filthy” that maybe its charms will reveal itself over time, too, but the clock is ticking, and I think Justin Timberlake can hear it.