Justin Timberlake has always kind of sucked, at least on a personal level, and his new song, “Selfish,” is just the latest turd to be floated across the surface of his long-stagnant career. It’s not just sanitized, Bieberized, blue-eyed R&B; it’s treacly schlock.
The lyrics are cliche heaped upon cliche, and he doesn’t bring even a whiff of sex, though you may still pick up the odor of bullshit. “Your lips were made for mine,” he sings, and while his heart may be “beatin’ for you all the time,” my stomach was “throwing up into my mouth.” And lest you think that he’s kept up with modern technology, the line, “Every time the phone rings, I hope that it’s you” feels like a time capsule from the days before the vibrate setting and Caller ID — the last era when Timberlake was relevant. “Selfish” isn’t even bad enough to be interesting, and it’s certainly not ambitious; it’s like he was aiming squarely for mediocre and still came up short.
The thing is, this is not a surprising development. Man of the Woods sucked in 2018, and as much as we wanted to like “Suit & Tie,” both parts of 2012’s The 20/20 Experience sucked as well. The only reasons that Timberlake matters more than other washed teen idols are two solo albums that seem more and more improbable with each passing year.
In retrospect, he caught Pharrell and Timbaland at the right time. Both superproducers were at the peak of their powers when they guided Timberlake through Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, respectively. Among the megastar class that’s not so uncommon; I can think of plenty of pop artists who had one or two good albums and then floundered, unable to again assemble the right collaborators under a unified vision. Timberlake can’t project manage, and he doesn’t have Beyoncé’s ear for beats or Taylor Swift’s feel for lyrics.
He does have some, for lack of a better term, soft skills. For instance, he was able to capitalize on his relationship with Britney Spears to sell FutureSex/LoveSounds. Ignore for the moment Spears’ memoir, where she wrote that he had done all the cheating and she was blindsided by “Cry Me a River” — the tactic had a Machiavellian efficiency, even if it doesn’t do him any credit personally or artistically.
Still, for a guy like this — handsome, white, a tremendous dancer, and willing to play dirty — his solo run has been surprisingly boring. Time and again over the last ten years, he has gone into the studio with the most accomplished hitmakers in the world, only to produce a tune about as lively as a dead house plant.
The longer this goes on, the easier it is to put those two solo albums in context. Pharrell was deep in his bag during Justified. FutureSex/LoveSounds might be Timbaland’s masterpiece.
Those albums would be classics no matter who sang them. But because it was this guy, we seem to be stuck with him.