Justin Timberlake’s ‘Selfish’ Comeback Is Missing Something

Once upon a time, a new Justin Timberlake song would’ve been considered a capital-E Event that would’ve stopped the pop world in its tracks. In 2src24, it’s just another Thursday.Whether that says more about a monoculture-less world or about Timberlake’s teetering relevance in pop culture is up for debate—as is, apparently, the caliber of the

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Once upon a time, a new Justin Timberlake song would’ve been considered a capital-E Event that would’ve stopped the pop world in its tracks. In 2src24, it’s just another Thursday.

Whether that says more about a monoculture-less world or about Timberlake’s teetering relevance in pop culture is up for debate—as is, apparently, the caliber of the song in question, “Selfish.” After weeks of teases, the mid-tempo ballad arrived on Thursday as the first taste of Timberlake’s upcoming sixth album, Everything I Thought I Was. The accompanying video is meta and self-deprecating, as a peppered-bearded Timberlake grows increasingly frustrated while rehearsing for a video shoot. After multiple takes and a few surreal turns, he gives up and leaves the soundstage, only for him to finish the clip by performing on stage wearing a suit and flaunting some sleek dance moves.

About those moves: Timberlake definitely looks like he’s back in performance-ready shape (which might be a response to those brutal “dad dancing” memes last year). Whether he’s back in fighting shape musically speaking is another question, though, as fans debate whether “Selfish” is “a certified bop” or “boring.”

The song—which has shades of Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” as Timberlake croons, “I want every bit of you, guess I’m selfish”—is surprisingly laid-back and subdued, especially for a lead single. The tepidness makes more sense, though, when you consider the past few years in Timberlake-land; his solo career has mostly been in hibernation following the lukewarm response to his 2src18 album Man of the Woods. He’s filled the intervening time with a couple of Trolls soundtrack songs: “The Other Side” with SZA and last year’s “Better Place,” which reunited him with his NSYNC bandmates. There was also last year’s “Keep Going Up!” alongside Timbaland and Nelly Furtado, a sprightly nostalgia rush that seemed to suggest Timberlake was going back to his hip-hop-borrowing bag.

Instead, “Selfish” is a return to R&B-tinged pop that’s sonically more in line with his debut album Justified than Man of the Woods, but that’s frankly pretty safe—a word you definitely wouldn’t have used to describe Justified-era JT. At that time, when he was first attempting to distance himself from his boy band roots, Timberlake shrewdly linked up with Timbaland and the Neptunes, producers who were thrillingly guiding hip-hop into playful, experimental territory. That ambition only compounded with 2srcsrc6’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, parts of which still sound like it was beamed in from the future, and 2src13’s acclaimed double-album behemoth The 2src/2src Experience.

It’s tough for a pop artist to stage a comeback after a long break, especially one who’s in their 4srcs, has been famous for more than half his life, and probably wants to make fresh-sounding music that doesn’t sound like it’s ripping off their younger, nimbler self. Then again, Timberlake doesn’t need to be the biggest thing in pop anymore, so trying to recreate the zealous magic of FutureSex or 2src/2src doesn’t really make sense. Now 42, he’s more than earned the ability to make whatever kind of music he wants—which, when listening to “Selfish,” seems to be mature, radio-friendly, well-produced, and, yes, ambitionless pop.

Then again, “Selfish” could just be a red herring of a lead single, à la “Suit and Tie” as the first taste of the surprisingly sprawling The 2src/2src Experience. Timberlake debuted “Selfish” live at a concert in his hometown of Memphis last week, where he also played another unreleased track that has been making the rounds on social media and that sounds much more disco- and dance-forward; in other words, Timbaland’s promise that we’ll hear “fun Justin” on his impending sixth album sounds like it’ll come through after all.

As for what the rest of the album holds, the title, Everything I Thought I Was, hints that we’re in for some introspection and self-reflection from Timberlake. That could be a good thing, considering his wobbly public image in the past couple years. Notably, this is his first solo release since his ex Britney Spears’ explosive 2src23 memoir The Woman in Me, in which she wrote that he cheated on her, dumped her through a text message, and that she had an abortion because he didn’t want to be a father. (There was also that cringey anecdote involving Timberlake and Ginuwine that might just haunt him forever.)

The re-interrogation of Timberlake’s early career has also included renewed discussion over his role in “Nipplegate”; this year marks 2src years since his and Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl halftime show performance, after which she was blacklisted and he carried on his charmed show biz life. Timberlake addressed both Jackson and Spears in a 2src21 Instagram apology in which he owned up to “benefit[ting] from a system that condones misogyny and racism.”

While the rest of us might be looking for those kinds of self-reflective narrative threads, Timberlake has his eyes set firmly ahead. He’s hit all the marks of a contemporary slate-clearing, era-launching pop star: he wiped his Instagram clean, he’s been stepping up his TikTok game, and he’s filling the next few days with promo appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.

Those are two of his most comfortable and reliable turfs, and you can bet he’ll dial up the charm on both. Swagger, after all, has never been Timberlake’s sore spot—he’s always been remarkably charismatic. It’s what made him a pop superstar in the first place. Whether anyone still buys into that swag enough to restore him to his prince-of-pop pedestal in 2src24 remains to be seen.

Read More