Justin Timberlake: Filthy review comeback single channels Prince for grown-up funk masterpiece

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After fluffy megahit Cant Stop the Feeling!, Timberlake goes dark and dangerous and shows that his instinct for subtle, futurist R&B hasnt deserted him

Justin Timberlakes single Filthy is his first new release since his ambitious, occasionally riveting but ultimately bloated 2013 double album The 20/20 Experience. Well, if you exclude his schmaltzy score for The Book of Love, and Cant Stop the Feeling!, a single released in tandem with the animated Trolls movie a fluffy, kid-friendly pop song that ended up being his biggest hit to date.

One wonders what Filthy might sound like in a live set alongside tracks from his new album Man of the Woods, which could well be a darker, gnarlier affair. The artwork features a photo ripped in two, one half showing him in jeans in a field, the other him in a suit in a snowy forest big clanging signifiers for an artist trying to reconcile R&B and Americana, slickness and rootsiness, coldness and warmth.

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Justin Timberlakes Man of the Woods album cover.
The guest stars play out the split too: Alicia Keys and Timberlakes old sparring partners the Neptunes on one hand, country star Chris Stapleton on the other. Trolls are unlikely to feature. So can Timberlake have it all get serious again, last the R&B course and also, as The Outline neatly put it, rebrand as a white man?

On the basis of Filthy, he absolutely can. Beginning with some bombastic guitar rock, it transmogrifies into a beautifully dark, undulating funk track underpinned by a whiplash bass womp. This kind of wobbling bassline was made ludicrous by the American take on dubstep earlier in the decade, but here co-producers Timberlake, Timbaland and the latters protege Danja conspire to make it dangerous again. Alongside the blockbuster elements there are gorgeously subtle flourishes, like the fluttering intake of breath sitting low in the mix.

Vocally, Timberlake heavily channels Prince, particularly the exacting, scornful tone of When Doves Cry, while his whatchu gonna do with all that meat? is like an X-rated version of Bruno Marss whatchu tryna do? from 24k Magic. If this is Timberlakes white rebranding, hes not doing a great job of it. But its not a mere parroting of others, either the chorus, which modulates into a sweeter, smoother key, is signature Timberlake.

The video meanwhile, with shades of Ex Machinas cyborg dance scene, stars Timberlake as a Steve Jobs figure controlling a robot with his own moves backstage a smart way of announcing his maturity, not putting himself front and centre, while still getting to essay his magnificent flair for dance.

The maximalist ending of the track might not be to everyones tastes it boils a little of the taste out of the funk but is still handled with brio, and the song sounds like nothing else in the pop landscape right now. With its relatively experimental bent, Filthy may only get a 10th of the 737m streams Cant Stop the Feeling! has got on Spotify but its riveting evidence that Timberlake can still be the R&B futurist he was at the outset of his solo career.

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