Justin Timberlake Isn't What We All Want, and That's OK

Justin Timberlake plays Toyota Center on May 23 and May 25.
Justin Timberlake plays Toyota Center on May 23 and May 25. Photo by Greg Noire
In a way, I almost feel bad for Justin Timberlake. Well, inasmuch as you can feel bad for a handsome, charming, uber-talented multimillionaire with a famous wife, beautiful family and legion of diehard fans.

To show pity for Timberlake is grading on a curve, to be sure. It’s akin to taking pity on James Harden for being the third-best player in the NBA, or feeling sorry that Jose Altuve only has one American League MVP award. Point being, it’s possible to sympathize with wealth and talent, but it ain’t exactly the same as rooting for the single mother of two who works two jobs to make ends meet.

But back to Timberlake, who is headlining a pair of shows at Toyota Center this week – Wednesday, May 23 and Friday, May 25. The fact that JT is headlining two arena shows in one week, and another in January 2019, speaks to the man’s popularity.

He is in the pantheon of pop stars over the past two decades, alongside household names like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Drake and Eminem. Timberlake was the face of the biggest boy band in music history. Dude has gone Platinum many times over, dated some of the most famous women on the planet and is universally beloved as both a musician and variety show sidekick.

And, yet, it almost feels like Timberlake’s musical endeavors – particularly, of late – have disappointed. Is Justin Timberlake the pop star we all expected him to be? No, no he most certainly is not. And that’s okay.

As much as we love to build up our icons, we equally enjoy tearing them down. For Timberlake, his time of backlash is upon us. It all began with the February release of Man of the Woods. Timberlake’s fifth proper studio album, Man of the Woods was billed in the days leading up to its release as a rootsy affair, perhaps even a country record. Timberlake, decked out like a hipster lumberjack, billed appearances from Chris Stapleton and talked of his country roots in Tennessee.

Man of the Woods was to be a change of pace for JT, and people were legit excited. Well, until it was released. Turns out, Man of the Woods wasn’t a country record. It wasn’t Timberlake, in some sort of career mid-life crisis, venturing out into new territory. No, Man of the Woods was pretty much standard Timberlake – a nice mix of pop, funk and R&B. If anything, it sounded quite a bit like his previous material, not entirely similar, but not dissimilar enough to earn “change of pace” status. And this really pissed some people off.

Reviews were decidedly mixed, and words like “indulgent,” “empty” and “soulless” were routinely thrown around. One publication called it a “mess” and “kind of embarrassing.” Another essentially called it stale and boring. Sales were good, but for Timberlake standards, didn’t quite measure up. Hell, his Super Bowl Halftime Show performance – designed to promote Man of the Woods – was met with blowback!

This blowback is all unfair. Man of the Woods is a perfectly fine album – not Timberlake’s best, but certainly not his worst (seriously, did you hear the second half of The 20/20 Experience?) – but it’s a catchy little retro album, and time will be kind to tracks like “Say Something” and “Morning Light.” Not to say this blowback is particularly unexpected, either.

Timberlake’s first two records – which, to be fair, are his best – established him as the preeminent pop icon on the block. He may never be Michael Jackson, but dammit, he was gonna give it a go. Hits like “Rock Your Body,” “Cry Me a River” and “SexyBack” flowed like wine. Timberlake was to be the torch bearer of pop music for years to come. Instead, at the height of his powers, he decided to press pause on music and give acting a go. He went seven years between albums, and while the first 20/20 Experience yielded a couple of hits, it paled in comparison to its predecessors.

Five years later, Man of the Woods was to be the next logical step for Timberlake. He’d leave the shiny pop to those new to the scene and instead shift his sound altogether to a more natural, almost folksy sound. Instead, what we got was an album without a coherent theme or sound.

Timberlake shouldn’t have to apologize for any of this. He’s more than made his bones as a pop star. He’s got the chops and hits to back it up. He’s one of the most charming, engaging entertainers in pop music, some 20-plus years after *NSYNC became a thing. He sings. He dances. He acts.

Even at 37, it seems like Timberlake has yet to truly decide in which direction he’d like his career to go. And it's increasingly likely that he will never be the pop star we, once upon a time, all expected him to be. Perhaps that was the point all along.

Justin Timberlake's show is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23 and Friday, May 25 at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk. For information, call 866-466-8849 or visit $49.50-$250, plus fees.
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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale