Justin Timberlake Brings Grown-&-Sexy Back on ‘Everything I Thought I Was’

Unsurprisingly, the first truly great moment on Justin Timberlake’s new album, Everything I Thought It Was, is also the first song with Timbaland at the helm. The album, Timberlake’s sixth, arrives at a somewhat precarious career moment for someone who was once one of our most indelible pop stars. The last few years have seen him facing several Dickhead Allegations, possibly-expired statute of limitations notwithstanding. Reminiscing on her past with the culture firmly back in her corner, Britney Spears let loose a litany of unfavorable anecdotes and the narrative presented in JT’s breakthrough solo hit “Cry Me a River” suddenly started looking funny in the light. Meanwhile lingering resentments about his too-little-too-late acceptance of culpability in the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident bubbled back to the top. Those sentiments threatened to permanently recast JT’s trademark affability as the mask of an unrepentant villain. On top of that, the new music was nowhere near good enough to overcome the chatter—The 20/20 Experience–2 of 2 was a disappointing sequel, and he followed it with an even weaker project, 2018’s Man of the Woods, a critically-panned tonal misfire.

All of that is to say there’s a lot riding on this new release, which needed to both change the narrative and reassert that he still has more to offer contemporary music than Trolls soundtrack cuts. Yet, crucially, the best thing about the Everything I Thought It Was rollout is Timberlake hasn’t let us see him sweat. Running through an expertly-sequenced set of hits at a small-venue prerelease show in L.A. this week, he seemed utterly unburdened, and that attitude is reflected in his new music, which is the most at ease Timberlake has sounded on wax in 10 years.

There are no of-the-moment producers recruited to make JT sound “2024,” no forced bids from his usual cadre of collaborators to be “current,” no shoehorned guest stars. For a second there it looked like his way back might be leaning into a Heel Turn—he intro’d “Cry Me a River” at a similarly small New York show a few weeks back by declaring that he wanted to “apologize…to absolutely fucking nobody” (which was a pretty fire display of standing on business, to be fair), and he actually plays an unrepentant asshole in the recent Netflix thriller Reptile. But only a couple of the new tracks, like the album intro and the second single “Sanctified,” reckon even lightly with the shifting perception around him. Instead, the album is quite simply Timberlake doing what he does best: making great R&B that sounds comfortably grown and at peace with the idea that while his Future Sex days are over, stunting and strutting are still possible post-40—the ideal he presented on the first 20/20, revisited and expanded upon.

To that end, while the moody, how-far-I’ve-come intro “Memphis” is dope, the album’s first real heater sounds like it could’ve been a 20/20 Part 1 leftover in the best way. That project was populated with slinking, anti-radio runtime Timbaland tracks that either shapeshifted into full-on grooves midway, or downshifted from vibrant to laidback—an album full of “What Goes Around Comes Around”s and “Summer Love/ Set the Mood”s. And that’s exactly what we get on Everything’s fifth track, “Technicolor.”

Timbo sets the tempo at slow and sultry to start; JT’s lyrics (“I love and hate to watch you walk away”) aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they don’t need to. The adoration in the delivery, the way he crescendos on the “I can never get ENOUGHHHH” chorus—this is Real Yearning, the respectfully horny emotions R&B was founded on. JT has always been one of that game’s best modern-day students, the erstwhile soulful white boy with a standing invite to the cookout. It’s always been his strongest bag, moreso than straightforward pop. Early reactions to the album’s lead single “Selfish” fairly compared it to vintage Justin Bieber; a song like “Technicolor” is quite clearly, unmistakably, Justin Timberlake.

By the halfway point as things kick up into a groove fit for a two-step, it’s clear JT is fully locked in. No unfortunate bids for chart hits like “Supplies,” no attempts to recapture the disruption of “Sexyback” like “Filthy,” no aimless fooling around like whatever the hell JT and Timbaland were doing on 20/20 Part 2. Everything has a few straightforward pop-aiming tracks, all upbeat and disco-adjacent, some more successful than others, all mostly fine. But, man, when he gets into the R&B zone with Timbaland, as on the equally excellent “What Lovers Do,” it’s a thrilling reminder of why he broke out solo in the first place.

The NSYNC reunion track “Paradise” will be the headline takeaway, understandably so. It’s a nice little group ballad that lives up to the billing. But the real gems here are when Timberlake just refocuses on his strengths and drives straight to the basket with the Timbo assist. He’s still got his handle—haters will dispute, but to me, he never actually lost it. As it turns out, what we want from Justin Timberlake in 2024 is everything he thought we did.

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