The Hamilton Spectator

Timberlake is a man out of time on ‘Everything I Thought It Was’


It would’ve been weird enough for Justin Timberlake, of all people, to open his new album with a sob story about the high price of fame. But one in which he frames the pain he’s endured as a byproduct of his devotion to his Tennessee hometown? That’s truly unhinged.

Yet it’s just what Timberlake does with “Memphis,” the first song on “Everything I Thought It Was,” which came out Friday, more than half a decade after the release of his previous LP. Over a bleary, slow-mo trap beat, the singer and former boy-band star, now 43, laments the isolation he experience­d and the sacrifices he made on his way up — a wild choice given the critique that’s coalesced in recent years of Timberlake as a man long permitted to glide by troubles that damaged the women around him (including his ex-girlfriend Britney Spears and his onetime Super Bowl halftime partner Janet Jackson).

It’s also a baffling aesthetic approach: By rooting his struggles in his connection to an African American cultural capital — “I was way too far out in the world, but I still put on for my city,” he insists in his well-practiced blaccent — Timberlake is flaunting his proximity to Blackness at a moment when pop seems to have little of the use it once did for white guys doing R&B. Consider the disappeara­nce of Robin Thicke; consider Justin Bieber’s apparent reluctance to jump back into the game.

Or consider that much of the discourse surroundin­g this year’s Super Bowl halftime performanc­e, by Usher, had to do with the sorry fact that it took this Black superstar as long as it did to reach pop’s biggest stage while Timberlake was invited to headline six years ago — and after having taken part in the 2004 “wardrobe malfunctio­n” that derailed Jackson’s career.

None of this is to doubt Timberlake’s genuine love of R&B nor to diminish his undeniable skill for making it: Though it’s larded with glib disco-funk tracks and morose, One Republic-style pop-rock tunes, “Everything I Thought It Was” contains a handful of gems in “Love & War,” a Prince-ish ballad with his prettiest falsetto singing, and the spacey slow jam “What Lovers Do”; “Selfish,” the album’s coolly received lead single, is another highlight, this one with echoes of Bieber’s underrated “Changes” from 2020.

Timberlake’s enthusiasm­s were also on display last week at the Wiltern, where he played an intimate free concert meant to drum up attention for the new music and for a world tour he’ll launch next month. His 2006 ballad “Until the End of Time” was soulful and unhurried — watch him do it with similar finesse in a just-released NPR Tiny Desk Concert — and he seemed sincerely amped to bring out Coco Jones, the up-and-coming R&B singer, for a duet on her slinky “ICU,” which he called one of his favorite songs of the last five years.

Jones wasn’t Timberlake’s only guest at the Wiltern: Near the end of the show, he reunited the members of ’N Sync to perform a medley of several of the band’s vintage hits, including “Gone,” probably its most impressive downtempo moment, and “Girlfriend,” which the group did as a raunchy mash-up with Too Short’s classic “Blow the Whistle.” (Less happily, the members also perched on five carefully arranged stools to offer the live debut of “Paradise,” a maudlin new ’N Sync song featured on “Everything I Thought It Was.”)

For most of the nearly two decades since ’N Sync’s initial breakup, Timberlake has appeared ambivalent about a comeback, even sitting out a much-hyped cameo by the group during Ariana Grande’s performanc­e at Coachella in 2019. Here, though, he looked gratified to have his old pals by his side — and eager, perhaps, to revisit a time when his privilege promised unlimited mileage.

 ?? KEVIN WINTER GETTY IMAGES FOR IHEARTRADI­O ?? Justin Timberlake’s latest album, “Everything I Thought It Was,” came out last Friday.
KEVIN WINTER GETTY IMAGES FOR IHEARTRADI­O Justin Timberlake’s latest album, “Everything I Thought It Was,” came out last Friday.

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