Timberlake returns on nostalgic ‘Everything I Thought It Was’

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In its better tracks, Justin Timberlake’s first new album in six years, “Everything I Thought It Was,” is a return to form for the musician. In the moments when his immediately recognizable falsetto eases into a familiar kind of future funk, it works. In others, it feels like poorly timed nostalgia.

Once celebrated as one of the great performers of the 21st century for his clever R&B-pop, JT has had a remarkable career: from Disney’s star-making “The Mickey Mouse Club” to fronting one of the most successful boy bands of all time, NSYNC, to finding a path towards individuation and embarking on a stellar solo stint. The latter might be the most impressive — from 2002’s “Justified” to 2006’s “Future../ LoveSounds,” and an acting career (lest anyone forget his performance in “The Social Network”) to yet another triumphant return to his spot atop pop music’s throne with 2013’s “The 20/20 Experience” and “The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2.”

If only it would’ve lasted. Timberlake’s public perception faltered in the years that followed. The album between that era and this one, 2018’s “Man of the Woods” leaned into “return to roots” iconography (Timberlake is from Tennessee, after all) and Americana, folk sounds — a divisive detour. When, in the early 2020s, the “Free Britney Spears” movement picked up momentum, Timberlake was cast as a villain in her story, which was only amplified with the release of her 2023 memoir “The Woman in Me.” Several chapters are devoted to her relationship with Justin Timberlake, including deeply personal details about pregnancy, abortion, and painful breakup. Timberlake was also criticized for his role at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. That’s all necessary context to bring the larger-than-life Justin Timberlake into 2024. The 18-track “Everything I Thought It Was,” does not erase the “Man of the Woods” period, but it is an enjoyable — if often derivative — a reminder of Timberlake at the height of his powers: from the slow-swag heartbreak track “Drown” co-written and co-produced by Timberlake, Louis Bell, Cirkut, Kenyon Dixon and Amy Allen to other elevated moments. Like “No Angels,” with its disco rhythms and idiosyncratic falsetto on “There ain’t no angels here on the dance floor” or on the inverted gospel “Sanctified,” which features rapper Tobe Nwigwe and stadium-sized rock instrumentation. The pop “Paradise” features all of NSYNC — if only a reunion was permanent.

Released
Then there’s “Selfish,” the first single released from the album, an R&B ballad that bears striking resemblance to Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” (which is odd, because “Jealous” steals from JT’s early work — and much of Jonas’s solo career, it seems, was designed to mirror Timberlake’s successful break from his boy band. Snake, meet tail.) Any rectifying with his past self — and his current public perception — is limited to the opener “Memphis”: “I pray for peace within myself/And no more regrets with it,” he sings. “’Cause when I looked at my soul in the Mississippi/It reflected it.” The rest of the album, it seems, focuses on love and the strength of his relationship with wife Jessica Biel. In the press leading up to the release of “Everything I Thought It Was,” Timberlake has said the album took four years to make, and that he wrote 100 songs for it. The reality is, for the nostalgic charms found on “Everything I Thought It Was,” Timberlake’s work is no doubt colored by an unfortunately timed return to the music game.

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