Once you get through the abrasive crash of guitars, keys, and drum thumps in the first twenty-five seconds of Justin Timberlake’s new single “Filthy”—seemingly custom-built to open his scheduled set during the Super Bowl LII Halftime Show next month—you’ll find yourself in somewhat more familiar Timberlake territory.
It’s not quite as immediately infectious as “SexyBack,” nor does it have the giddy melodic flourish of “Suit & Tie,” his previous lead singles from 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and 2013’s The 20/20 Experience, respectively. But Timberlake and his co-producers Timbaland and Danja are no slouches when it comes to making records that are, at the very least, rhythmically compelling. Upon first listen, it’s a little intimidating, and perhaps even a bit confusing given the rather earthy home-on-the-range teaser Timberlake released earlier this week announcing the arrival his fifth studio album, Man of the Woods.
I’m ambivalent about whether I really like what I hear, even after a few repeated plays. “Filthy” does feel a bit clunky and cold in places, which is a noticeable diversion from the neatly-hemmed arrangements of several of Timberlake’s other radio gems—certainly opposing the clean, sunshiny bounce of his most recent hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” But there’s no mistaking his trademark swagger, to which he explicitly refers to in the track’s first verse. Spacey synth zaps punch through the steady bass-and-drum clomp which tend to wash out, likely intentionally, Timberlake’s electronically distorted vocal line, relenting for only a few moments when his signature R&B-kissed harmonies bubble up above the din. I think he’s a talented vocalist with a lot of range to offer, so mixing him way back seems like a missed opportunity.
Lyrically, things are pretty light with sexual charge to spare (‘I said, put your filthy hands all over me / and no, this ain't the clean version / and what you gonna do with all that meat? / cookin' up a mean servin'’). I don’t know if it’s an especially innovative track in and of itself—even among what comprises Timberlake’s own catalog—but given that the accompanying video has received over two million streams on YouTube since its release early this morning, it’s generated enough buzz that the lack of depth might not be all that consequential.
Speaking of, the Mark Romanek (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, JAY-Z) directed clip portrays Timberlake as a Steve Jobs doppelgänger (complete with stylized black turtleneck shirt), showcasing an android at a conference in Malaysia that mimics its protagonist’s dance moves. It’s fun, and a bit frisky, and his sense of play driving the visual actually helps to warm the track up just a bit.
Man of the Woods, Timberlake’s first album in five years, is set to drop on February 2nd and will reportedly be preceded by three more advance singles and companion videos. While “Filthy” isn’t a bad place to start, Timberlake’s musical vision typically becomes clearer once you’re able to appreciate his singles within the context of his full-length projects. I’m hoping that Man of the Woods will show more substance than braggadocio. Sure, a good romp can be cathartic, but after twenty-three years as a recording artist, Timberlake has the goods and the savvy to challenge himself and his audience to something a bit more sophisticated.