Justin Timberlake, Everything I Thought It Was review: About as sexy as a soiled mattress

Pop star’s first album in six years is a real slog, bogged down with bloated R&B slow jams

Helen Brown
Friday 15 March 2024 06:00 GMT
Timberlake’s new album fails to stir the loins
Timberlake’s new album fails to stir the loins (Charlotte Rutherford)

“Hey baby. Listen, I got this great new JT album, and if you’ve got a turntable maybe we could get it on!” runs a cheesy sample on Everything I Thought It Was, Justin Timberlake’s first studio album in six years. Alas, despite the relentless sexual braggadocio, the record’s sprawling R&B slow jams are more likely to inspire snoozing than shagging. Weighing in at a bloated 18 tracks, it’s got the soggy dead weight and wonky springs of a fly-tipped mattress.

I write this as a fan of some of the 43-year-old star’s snappier, boppier pop hits. Back before we knew the backstory about what’s rumoured to have really gone down between Timberlake and fellow Mickey Mouse Club star Britney Spears, I loved the glitchy synth hook of “Cry Me a River”. He was excellent strutting across the stage during his UK arena tour like a breakdancing James Bond when he was “bringing sexy back” in 2007. I’ve danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from the 2016 Trolls soundtrack at more children’s parties than I can count, and felt the glittery beats help me forget I’m covered in face paint and chocolate cake.

But this album is a real slog. It opens with the queasy slosh of “Memphis”, an oddly equivocal song in which he appears to lament the hard work he’s had to put into, in order to live up to the hopes of the city where he was born. Fame, he ponders, has been “a hell of a ride”. Then we’re pulled onto the dancefloor with a Calvin Harris co-write, “F***in’ Up The Disco”. It’s fun and forgettable, with a rubbery funk bass line over which Timberlake encourages a dance partner to lay her cheekbone onto his shoulder and “take a bite”.

Other danceable numbers include “My Favorite Drug” (there’s a cowbell) “No Angels” (apparently designed for JT to pull audience members onto the stage with lines like “I’ve chosen… you!”) and the brass-backed “Play”, which riffs on Bowie’s 1975 hit “Fame” (but where Bowie was deconstructing his “hollow” celebrity, Timberlake revels in its fruits, spending the day “sipping bougie rosé” and offering his interlocutor “something to play with… come on and play with it”).

“Infinity Sex” has a retro glitter ball funk in the flutes and finger snaps. Timberlake hits all the right notes but sounds disconnected as he dials in the lines: “I don’t know you any more/ Soon as all your clothes hit the floor/ Pray this hotel room is insured.” You don’t feel the pheromones.

Sexy... back? Artwork for Timberlake’s new album
Sexy... back? Artwork for Timberlake’s new album (AP)

The slow jams are sludge. Single “Selfish” has already failed to ignite the charts, being outperformed by Spears’ song of the same name after her fanbase mobilised against him. The dragging beat of “Technicolour” grinds on for a tedious seven minutes and 17 seconds. A heavily vocodered Timberlake assures us he can “never get enough”, but he’s alone in this. “Sanctified” climaxes with a big old gurner of a guitar solo and a rap from Tobe Nwigwe featuring the absurd, memeable line, “Inside my loins – Boing!” The album winds down the inevitable earnest piano (“Alone”) and guitar (“Paradise”) ballads before ending on “Conditions”, a song unlikely to mollify critics of JT’s behaviour over the years.

Of course, he’s not personally responsible for a patriarchal music culture that allowed his career to flourish while Spears lost all agency. He did benefit from it though, arguably helping throw her under the bus in that video for “Cry Me a River” and, according to Spears’ memoir, wasn’t the greatest boyfriend, either. So, the lyrics on “Conditions” seem a little entitled, as he sings about how he can “make a couple hundred bad decisions/ Do some s*** I know will be forgiven.” Especially when followed by a chorus in which he demands: “Just say you love me under all of my conditions.”

But – oof! – that’s all happening by track 18, and I suspect most listeners will have tuned out by then. JT hasn’t brought sexy back. I don’t think he took it anywhere near the studio either. Perhaps he left it under one of those hotel mattresses he claims to have broken.

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