So, then what are we supposed to make of "Filthy" and it's robot-filled video? Is Man of the Woods really a concept album about a pop star going to Westworld? Has JT entered his cyberpunk phase? More likely, it suggests that despite the rustic trailer and confessional promises, Timberlake is not especially interested in leaving his aesthetic comfort zone. He even recruited "Can't Stop The Feeling" director Mark Romanek, a music video veteran who recently helmed clips for Jay Z and Beyoncé, to direct the Steve Jobs parodying video, just like he coaxed David Fincher back into the video game for the "Suit and Tie" roll-out.
As a piece of music, the heavily processed funk of the track wouldn't have sounded out of place on either The 20/20 Experience or 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, which remains the last truly worthwhile musical project Timberlake has been involved with. There are hints of Timberlake's goofball sense of humor on the track -- lines like "What you gonna do with all that meat?" are supposed to be silly -- but that impish grin, familiar from his boy band days, is less endearing on a grown adult. Over a decade later and this is your comeback move? He's going back to his roots -- but his roots are more "SexyBack" than outback.
It could be worse: "Filthy" is certainly not as pandering and empty as "Can't Stop the Feeling." Timberlake is trying to cultivate some mystery and a sense of importance -- more than a few critics unfavorably compared the Man on the Woods announcement to Beyoncé's Lemonade -- but he'd be better off being more mercurial. For a study in contrasts, just look at one of 2017's most beloved artists Frank Ocean, who captivates fans by not showing up to concerts and releasing new songs with little to no fanfare. Obviously, Timberlake will never be like Ocean. At heart he's a huckster, desperate to please and hungry for attention. He should own that.
In the "Filthy" video, he spends most of the time offstage, watching his android creation wow audiences with dance moves. His character is itching to get out there himself, but he never gets the chance. That's a shame. He needs to ditch the turtle neck. Leave the woods. Shave the beard. You can find yourself in a spotlight, too.