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Five for Friday: Justin Timberlake Assets

Things didn't go so well the last time Justin Timberlake appeared on the Super Bowl halftime show. Remember? Back in 2004, in Houston, where Timberlake inadvertently revealed Janet Jackson's breast for a split second on live television in an incident that became known as the "wardrobe malfunction." But time – and a new album and tour to promote – tend to heal old wounds. This weekend in Minneapolis, Timberlake will again appear at the halftime show for America's biggest unofficial holiday. While social media has been demanding the pop star invite Jackson as an apology, her appearance is either a well-kept secret or a wishful fantasy. But Timberlake should have plenty to do. In addition to a stable of hits, he as a new record out today in the form of Man of the Woods, which sees him working once again with ol' pal Pharrell. Here, we set controversies aside and reflect on five reasons we love the former *NSYNC anchor.

"Say Something"
When Timberlake revealed the video teaser for Man of the Woods, it made the argument that the singer would return to his roots. Full of one-with-nature clips and Middle America imagery, as well as hints of acoustic instrumentation, the message seemed clear: expect a down-home, personal album. Well, Timberlake hasn't exactly gone all-Bon Iver on us. Yet "Say Something," a new collaboration with sturdy country maverick Chris Stapleton, does a fine job of assigning Timberlake some believable American heritage. The Memphis native coats the song in digital soul, and if it doesn't exactly recall the city's famed Stax style, it reveals the presence of old-school roots amidst the futuristic grooves. Most intriguing is the way organic sounds – a horn section, handclaps and, yes, a guitar – effortlessly fold into today's overly computerized pop production.

"Can't Stop the Feeling!"
Timberlake returned to the top of the pop charts in 2016, three years after releasing the multi-part album The 20/20 Experience. But he had the help of a hugely successful animated film. This Oscar-nominated song from Trolls, also 2016's best-selling single, is a disco-infused sugar rush. If Timberlake shimmied out of teen pop and into adulthood by offering irresistibly lightweight yet lascivious songs, here, even though working with Swedish producer Max Martin instead of Pharrell, he takes a page out of the latter's playbook. Consider this Timberlake's answer to Pharrell's "Happy," as comes on as a slinky, feel-good number that aims for the hearts of the whole family. Feelings of nostalgic innocence course through the colorful arrangement. An added bonus: The cut comes to a close with a charmingly funky breakdown.

In 2002, Timberlake hadn't yet made the transition from *NSYNC member into bonafide pop star. With fans not quite knowing what to expect, Timberlake teamed with the Neptunes – the production team of Pharrell and Chad Hugo – for this opening number on his solo debut, Justified. It immediately hinted at a solo career that would be open to numerous possibilities as "Señorita" positions Timberlake as pop chameleon. Launching with an introduction from Pharrell, the song soon starts to explore Latin inflections. Yet Timberlake leads a stuttering electric piano into Stevie Wonder-inspired territory. The Neptunes, meanwhile, fashion a beat out of an incessant cowbell. Taken individually, these ingredients would likely be more goofy than sexy, but Timberlake and the Neptunes know they're walking a fine line. Just listen to the closing call-and-response vamp, where Timberlake conducts separate male and female choirs. Only these cartoonish voices sound like they belong more on "Sesame Street" than in the club.

"What Goes Around .../...Comes Around"
This wallop of an R&B ballad about betrayal represents the best of Timberlake's work with producer Timbaland. It's grand, and maybe even a little bloated, but Timbaland provides enough sonic trinkets to heighten the drama. The duo would try too often to mimic such grandiosity on The 20/20 Experience, but on this 2006 cut, they get the formula just right. Built around Turkish instrumentation, the relatively relatable tale ends up sounding slightly exotic – at least to American ears. A circular melody, coupled with Timberlake's descending falsetto, creates a hypnotic feel, making the shift in the latter half feel all the more pronounced. Here, Timberlake starts to get bitter and the beat becomes more aggressive. The song calls it quits just before we get the sense the protagonist would do something he'd soon regret.

"Dick in a Box"
Many have posited theories as to how Timberlake, rather than any of his peers in other 90s-era boy bands, continues to endure into his mid-30s. Yes, consistently working with a hitmaker such as Pharrell hasn't hurt. But perhaps the clearest explanation for our nation's sustained interest in Timberlake is due not only to the artist's sense of humor but his ability to poke fun at himself. His string of "Saturday Night Live" appearances remains required viewing. Whether dressed as a singing tofu mascot for a vegan restaurant or chiding Beyoncé, Timberlake has shown no hesitation in making himself look ridiculous. Yet nothing tops "Dick in a Box," his R&B parody with Andy Samberg. An instant viral hit, the tune mocks the genre's tendency to deliver coarse messages in sweetly sung falsetto packages. It also highlights a particularly gross trend in male pop: boasting. In fact, the clip likely became such a success because it isn't far off from something that could be real.

Photo credit: Ryan McGinley

February 2, 2018

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