Justin Timberlake’s latest release, Man of the Woods, has been making waves and, in the opinion of most critics, not in a good way. The album is considered a misstep by many, a bold exclamation of JT’s b-list status. So why was the album named such a flop? It’s disjointed. It was expected to boast the sounds of the Blue Ridge Mountains and take cues from a rugged lifestyle, but instead ends up an oddly out of place, genre-less conglomerate of songs with seemingly no message.
But I’m into it.
Take each piece by itself and you may discover a new appreciation for JT. Fair warning—not every song shines alone, but I would argue that many do. The duets with Alicia Keys and Chris Stapleton are nothing short of phenomenal. The Hard Stuff has all the makings of a relatable country song. Midnight Summer Jam is the kind of tune that makes it impossible to sit still. And I haven’t been able to stop humming the melodic hook in Man of the Woods for three days.
I read the lack of cohesion in this album as a testament to Justin’s artistic confidence and independence from the marketing schemes that enforce genres. Another possible read would assume (quite to the contrary) that he simply tried and failed to create a marketable, popular work. I’ve chosen to ignore that possibility simply based on my own opinion, so no need to crucify me for naiveté.
As a songwriter, I have often wanted to expand my skill set by writing across genres, by creating music that does not fit into the boxes defined by marketers and the popular culture they attempt to predict and control.
Sometimes, people want to create for themselves.
Sometimes, artists want to let their own preferences take priority over the preferences of their target market. The external result can be brutal backlash or award-winning applause, but the internal result is almost always the same: satisfaction from successful self-expression. Maybe there is a smidgeon of that perspective behind the creation of Man of the Woods; after all, it would certainly fit the Thoreau-esque theme. This is all completely speculative, of course.
So while Justin Timberlake’s album may not have met expectations, it has the startling capacity to inspire and entertain. Additionally, it has me asking a question I think every creative should ask themselves regularly:
“who do I create for?”