Two things are immediately apparent about Justin Timberlake‘s first lead single in five years: First, the run time: 4:53 would make “Filthy” one of the shortest tracks on the 2013’s The 20/20 Experience eventual double set, a whole minute shorter than previous first-taste “Suit & Tie” once you chop off the disorienting, disembodied outro (as the song’s video does).
Second: the messiness. “Suit & Tie” would ultimately receive minor backlash from fans and critics for being perhaps a mite too buttoned-up, but from a production standpoint, the thing was as five-star flawless as a Baccarat champagne flute. “Fitlhy,” true to its name, is not that: The thing rumbles and crackles like an irritated stomach, unkempt from its opening feedback quake and remaining sonically on edge throughout. It never really locks in melodically or rhythmically, crashing from its Random Access Memories break into its acid-scratch slither and tickling bass, and back, a whole lot of tension without a ton of obvious accompanying release.
Meanwhile, Justin — whose “Suit” falsetto was delivered with the exactitude of a man hoping he’d be making as many people dance with it at weddings 40 years from now as “September” does today — sounds like he’s just kinda riffing throughout. The choruses sound like verses, the verses sound like ad libs. He throws in callback references to JAY-Z and Snoop Dogg as if they’d just occurred to him while he was vamping. “No, this ain’t the cleeeeeean ver-SION!” he yelps in the song’s most brain-sticking bit, and while the rest of the song doesn’t get much more explicit than “Would you mind if I do/ Exactly what you like, times two?” it’s clear which kind of “clean” he means: This isn’t GQ photo-shoot JT, and certainly not hit single off the Trolls soundtrack JT.
What version of JT is it, then? Well, the much-easier reference point would of course be “SexyBack,” the jaw- and ass-dropping lead single to Timberlake’s epochal second solo full-length FutureSex/LoveSounds. Like this left turn, “Sexy” sounded beamed in from an alternate-universe Top 40, a sandpaper groove with a naughty lyric (plus some legit F-bombs!) and a merciless thump to it that made the rest of radio instantly feel like Howie Day by comparison. Of course, what that song also had was hooks — crazy hooks, zooming in from every direction, making the song irresistible from its opening lyrics — and a menacing urgency that made it yowl out of the speakers. If there’s an obvious refrain to “Filthy,” well, maybe we could’ve used Timbaland in the background shouting out “Take ’em to the chorus!” stage directions on this one, too.
The real comparison, though, is with that album’s non-single title track, which also led off the set, as “Filthy” will on the upcoming Man of the Woods album. “FutureSex/LoveSound” wasn’t as hook-reliant as “SexyBack” — letting its monstrous wriggle do most of the heavy lifting — but sounded just as alien, and just as exciting. “Filthy” doesn’t quite get there, either: Over a decade has passed since JT and Timbo first changed the game, and though the new single carries the surprise of a now-Adult Contemporary-friendly Justin once again getting his hands dirty, it can’t carry the same shock of the new that FS/LS did when it arrived like a time-traveling warning from pop’s future.
Of course, Man of the Woods wasn’t billed as Justin Timberlake letting pop fans know what the weather was like from 2028: It was supposed to be a return to his roots, which — combined with his recent broship with Chris Stapleton, and this week’s largely misguided 60-second teaser trailer featuring Timberlake as a shallowly introspective combination of Thoreau and Bon Iver — had fans predicting a country-folk album from the Memphis native. That was probably never totally realistic, and from most of the verbage used in this article to describe “Filthy” up to this point, you can probably guess that JT’s not gonna be playing this one at the CMA’s anytime soon. Rather, it seems like Timberlake is instead flashing back to his creative and commercial peak, even though repeating the past in those terms may prove rather difficult, given that he’s now 36 and no longer unquestioned at pop’s epicenter.
The best reference point for “Filthy” might not come from Justin Timberlake, but from another planetary pop star whose place in the late-’10s sun is similarly unclear — and who also had a Super Bowl gig on the horizon. Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion” arrived nearly a year and a half ago with similar confidence in the infallibility of its surging disco stomp, sounding closer to the grit and grime of early-days Gaga than Stefani had in a minute. But it wasn’t 2009 anymore, “Illusion” sounded badly out of step with contemporary radio, and the single essentially bricked, debuting at No. 15 on the Hot 100 but never climbing higher, and not even making the cut for her halftime set list the next February.
However, talk to a certain subset of Little Monsters, and “Million Reasons” has emerged as a fan favorite, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see something similar happen with “Filthy.” It’s always a little gratifying to hear the first big single from a once-bulletproof star where it seems pretty clear that they’re never quite gonna own pop music in the same way again — it’s freeing, especially when the song has no designs on fitting in with the top 40 scene that has moved forward without them. Justin Timberlake could’ve hooked up with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter for a turbo-pop scorcher with a squawking, wordless hook; he could’ve borrowed a beat from Metro Boomin and a guest verse from 21 Savage and really tried to touch the 2020s; hell, he could’ve asked a friend of a friend if they had that Jack Antonoff guy’s number. Instead, he teamed up with his old buddies Timbaland and Danja for a weirdo retro-futuristic slab of inside-joke funk, as unmistakably JT as a smirk and a five o’clock shadow. There’s something to be said for that, even if it’s not likely the first thing anyone’s gonna be saying about “Filthy” this week.
And back to “Perfect Illusion” for a sec: It’s worth remembering that the song ultimately ended up being something of a fakeout for Gaga, whose ensuing Joanne album largely consisted of the kind of back-to-basics, Nashville-inflected pop/rock that many have speculated JT’s latest to be geared around — and that while Stefani ditched “Illusion” for Super Bowl LI, she doubled down on power ballad follow-up “Million Reasons,” scoring her biggest hit in years in the process. If “Filthy” underperforms commercially, it’ll be interesting to see which song Timberlake pushes next, and if he decides that — like Gaga — he may have more luck throwing back further than to his own recent past for an anthem that really makes sense for a mass musical moment in 2018. In other words, we may get to hear the clean, a-little-bit-country version of Justin Timberlake on the Man of the Woods album cycle yet.