Album Review: “Everything I Thought It Was” by Justin Timberlake

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Remember when David Spade made that infamous “look children, it’s a falling star” joke about Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live?

Murphy sure did. He got so mad that SNL would take aim at one of their own (especially one that, arguably, saved the show from cancellation) that he refused to go back for decades. Eventually, he relented and participated in the 40th Anniversary special in 2015 and hosted in 2019 for the first time in 35 years.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Years later, Spade reflected on the joke and realized why Murphy had taken such offense.

“[T]he truth was that when you are famous, you never want someone on a supposedly cool show to say you’re not cool,” Spade said in his 2016 autobiography, Almost Interesting. “Even if the person saying it is a nobody like me. Fame is so fragile and fleeting, and it can disappear for a million reasons. A jab like the one I had directed at Eddie can be the thing that starts to turn public opinion against someone.”

So what was the seemingly harmless jab that started Justin Timberlake’s fall from grace?

It was probably his 2018 album, Man of the Woods. Released at the zenith of his fame, stardom and (for lack of a better phrase) coolness, the album underwhelmed and actually garnered some bad reviews for him — something that hadn’t really happened before.

Then, his much-hyped performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2018 flopped. All of a sudden, Timberlake was no longer cool. And if you ever needed evidence of that, check him out earlier this year performing his ground-breaking song “SexyBack” while doing a bunch of bad dad dance moves and looking like an Old Navy cover model.

Not being cool is one thing. Far more damaging to his reputation were several retrospectives that represented a long delayed reckoning for Teflon Timberlake. First came a 2021 Lifetime documentary about Janet Jackson that saw Timberlake finally get blamed for his part in the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” and how he failed to support her after she got put through the wringer.

Then came the dual blow of a Britney Spears documentary in 2021 and autobiography two years later. The pop princess claimed, among other things, that it was Timberlake who had been unfaithful to her (rather than the long accepted narrative that she had been the cheater) and that he had pressured her to abort their unborn child.

As such, his stock has fallen faster than the Dow Jones during Black Thursday in 1929. Timberlake realized this and reportedly decided to put his musical comeback on hold for a couple of years until the backlash passed.

In the interim, he recorded a new song with NSYNC for the Trolls Band Together movie. The song wasn’t very good, feeling more like a Timberlake outtake with the other guys shoehorned in. Nevertheless, it led to feverish speculation that the band might tour for the first time since 2002.

No dice. While we still might get that NSYNC reunion at some point in the near future (Timberlake brought them out for a surprise encore at his show earlier this week), for now, it’s full speed ahead with Justin’s solo comeback.

There were a couple of ways he could have gone with his new album. He could have recorded a bunch of introspective and honest songs examining his past misdeeds while demonstrating personal and professional growth. It could have made for a compelling and redemptive project. Or he could have changed up his sound, something he half-heartedly did on Man of the Woods, and release a country or folk album — something that Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, respectively, have done in recent years.

Instead, his latest album, Everything I Thought It Was, is pretty much what it says on the cover. “I think that’s where I came up with the album title, with everything I thought it was. I was playing it for people around me. They’re like, ‘Oh, this sounds like everything we know you for.’ And then another friend of mine was like, ‘Oh, this sounds like everything I thought I wanted from you,'” he said in a recent interview.

He even lampshades this on the record, singing: “I know I did it before, but Imma do it again” on “My Favorite Drug,” before doing the call-and-response bit that he had done (better) on his 2002 hit “Señorita.” He also brings back the “everybody dance” part at the end that he used on “Like I Love You,” his first solo single (if you don’t count “Gone,” of course). And if that isn’t clear enough, he went even further during a February performance in New York City, telling the audience: “I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize — to absolutely f—ing nobody.”

For better or worse, this album is Justin doubling down on everything that made him big in the first place: sexy and seductive lyrics, quantity over quality (this album is 76 minutes long — not necessary in today’s post-CD era) and an odd, misplaced sense of victimhood (“Pop,” “Filthy“) that leaves no room for introspection, regret, personal growth, or reflection. That’s fine when you’re a young man just starting out in the music industry with something to prove. But when you’re a middle-aged self-professed family man who has been an A-lister and dual threat for the better part of two decades, it comes across as cringeworthy at best and sad at worst. It’s like he thinks that if he can try hard enough, he can turn back the clock to 2013 when everyone still loved him.

In fact, you wonder if he’s actively trolling his critics given how some of his song titles seem to indicate that he might be going the reflective route. For instance, lead single “Selfish,” is not about how he behaved when he was with Britney, or how he hung Janet out to dry. It’s a standard love song about how much he loves his lady (presumably Jessica Biel) and how he wants her all to himself. Meanwhile, album track “No Angels” isn’t an introspective look at his past behavior but about how likes bad girls. Even “Liar,” a song that could have directed towards his critics or indirectly at someone from his past, is about how he is lying when he says he doesn’t love his woman.

Other songs take on a more confrontational tone. “Drown” is directed towards an unnamed ex who “let me drown” and “didn’t even try to save me” (it could be a conceptual ex and not about anyone specific).

Even worse is album opener “Memphis,” a trap-style song that is full of self-pity and anger. “I was way too far out in the world, but I still put on for my city/ I was handin’ out too much milk money, too much kitten, and ass, and titties/ I lost my voice like a pastor, faster than a Harlem shimmy/ But I guess that’s what you get for tryin’ to make heartbreak pretty,” he says during a cringeworthy spoken word section that reminds me of Madonna’s “I’m drinking a soy latte, I get a double shoté… I do yoga and Pilates/ the room is full of hotties” rap from her career-killing song “American Life.” These are JT’s “first world problems,” and it comes across as tone deaf, especially in light of everything that has happened over the last few years. In essence, he’s saying: “Pity the poor multimillionaire who used to be so well-liked people overlooked questionable things in his past because they loved FutureSex/LoveSounds. Why can’t you go back to loving me like that?”

There are some highlights on this album. “Paradise,” which features NSYNC, is superior to “Better Place” and its “we’ve come a long way and been through a lot but here we are” theme would have seemingly made more sense as the featured song for the Trolls movie. Regardless of how you feel about Timberlake, there’s something comforting about listening to him duet with J.C. and harmonize with Chris, Joey and Lance again.

Additionally, “Infinity Sex” and “Imagination” both have good dance beats and pop structures that harken back to his Justified days. “My Favorite Drug” also has a catchy beat and the aforementioned call-and-response is derivative but will probably make for a fun experience in concert. “Selfish” isn’t his best lead single, but it’s still a pretty good song that gets better upon repeated listens. It’s certainly better than “Filthy,” his previous lead single.

But mostly, this album just drags and is real bore. It’s also derivative and unoriginal. The trap-influenced production and performance makes EITIW sound like everything else that’s on the market now. JT has always been more reliant on his production than other superstars like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé — my theory has always been that he needs it to cover up his shortcomings as a vocalist (there’s a reason why those “It’s gonna be May!” memes landed so well). But usually, he’s the one dictating things rather than just following the pack. Instead, now he just sounds like a Drake knock-off.

Simply put, there’s nothing interesting on this album — it could have sat on the shelf forever and we wouldn’t have missed a thing. Timbaland said this album was “fun Justin” again. If this is “fun Justin” then God forbid we ever see “boring Justin” or “miserable Justin.”

Moreover, the endless odes to his wife are just tiresome at this point. His previous two albums (I count The 20/20 Experience as one) contained tons of “I love my wife, I’m so attracted to her, she’s the best” songs that it’s become a cliche. It also makes you wonder why he’s trying so hard — if reports are to be believed, he hasn’t been the most faithful husband, and rumors have been rife for years that the two are headed for a divorce. You know who else played that “I’m so in love with my wife” card while constantly playing away from home? Robin Thicke. That’s not exactly the career trajectory Justin should want — we certainly don’t need him to record a Paula-like album called “Jessica.”

Then again, writing and recording a concept album about a failing marriage like Paula would force him to be introspective and to reinvent himself. Clearly, those qualities aren’t in his repertoire just yet. And that’s why his refusal or unwillingness to do it doesn’t just reflect on him as a person, it also handicaps him as a performer. Reinvention is the easiest way to weather the storms and downturns, and artists like Swift, Beyoncé and Madonna have turned it into an artform. For instance, when Swift went through a personal and professional backlash a few years ago, she reinvented herself, first with the strident, angry Reputation and then with the more mature and different sounding Folklore. She got through the backlash and today she’s bigger than she’s ever been.

Of course, there’s still one card he can play. In 2006, a pop superstar and boy band alumnus who was coming off a string of successful and critically acclaimed albums finally made a misstep and released a dud.

His personal life and past problems also caught up to him, forcing him to take time off. When Robbie Williams finally came back, he reunited with his old band for a well-received album and tour before resuming his solo career to great success.

Maybe if this album flops, Timberlake will finally give in and do the NSYNC reunion that we’ve all been waiting for. They can even structure it like the Take That shows with Robbie. Give Justin a set to do his songs and then have the full band run through their hits. If the others want a showcase for themselves, then J.C. can do a few of his songs off Schizophrenic, Lance can show footage of himself training to be an astronaut, Chris can narrate a slideshow of his questionable hairstyles in the 90s and 00s (or his forgettable time on Mission: Man Band), and Joey can sing his solo masterpiece: “Cilantro.”

Come on Justin! Do it! You’ll be cool again and everyone will love you! Do it before SNL brings Spade back for another “Weekend Update” segment.

Grade: D

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