In a new interview with Entertainment Tonight, Justin Timberlake reveals that he has new music with Lizzo, SZA, and Meek Mill on the way. It's a huge shift from the wilderness aesthetic he donned for Man of the Woods, but after the backlash following his previous album, the man who fashioned his career off traditionally Black music like R&B and soul, is returning to collaborate with some of hip-hop's boldest voices. It isn't the first time in his nearly 20 years as a solo act that Timberlake stands to gain credence from his proximity to Black artists. But it's surprising he's pivoting back to Blackness so quickly, especially given the way he marketed his last album.
In January of 2018, Justin Timberlake released a minute-long trailer for his fifth studio album Man of the Woods. It caught some diehard fans by surprise for its depiction of the singer frolicking in snowcapped fields with horses. According to his wife Jessica Biel, the album sounded like "mountains, trees, [and] campfires." The promo for Man of the Woods seemed incongruent with an artist who emulated the soul of R&B for two decades, but Timberlake insisted it was his most "personal" album.
What did a "personal" album for an artist as influenced by Black culture as Justin Timberlake sound like? The rollout for the album was a departure from the era when he emulated Jodeci, wore cornrows, and used choreography that allowed him to grace the same SuperBowl stage as Janet Jackson. In the wake of the 2016 election's focus on rural America, Man of the Woods caught Timberlake performing whiteness on a grand scale for the first time in his career.
But the shift in persona he pulled off for Man of the Woods wasn't working for the singer. "I just called my publisher and said I want to work with young, fresh people and I want to collaborate more," he told ET, namedropping Lizzo as a new collaborator he's excited about. The two met at the Songwriters Hall of Fame but Timberlake won't say anything about their union except that "it's flames." "I'm having these experiences that are fueling me in such a different way and again, I think it was really birthed out of feeling like, 'What can I do right now to just be a part of my community and integrate?'"
Yes, you read that right. Justin Timberlake, the Prince of Pop for many 90s babies, is using words like "integrate" in 2019 when it comes to how he interacts with Black artists.
While much of the interview was about the prospect of new music, it also highlighted Timberlake's role in the Stax Music Academy, a music school that helps the youth of South Memphis. "It's important to remember how [Stax Music Academy] changed the world," he said. "I want [the kids] to be able to cover Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding but also I want them to be able to sample them and turn it into something else." Timberlake's involvement with the academy and Stax's legacy then make it necessary to ask why the influences of singers like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes were largely absent from Man of the Woods, an album he claimed was shaped mostly by his Memphis upbringing.
Man of the Woods may have been marketed with southern aesthetics, but helmed, as it was, by frequent collaborators like Pharrell and Timbaland, it was as influenced by the sounds of Blackness as Timberlake's music had always been, save for the presence of a Chris Stapleton feature where a Jay-Z or T.I. would typically have been. His decision to market the album with the kind of symbolism (like the perceived masculinity of the outdoors) usually associated with whiteness is enough to raise the question: why is he going back now, and specifically with artists as unapologetically Black as Lizzo, SZA, and Meek Mill? As anticipated as this new music may be, it's hard to see past what it means for Timberlake, or any artist, to pick and choose when they want to participate in Black culture.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.