Last year at this time, pop fans were still rocking out to Justin Timberlake’s song from “Trolls.” Now, the question is: Was Justin just trolling us earlier in the week with that rootsy, “personal,” “inspired by my son,” outstanding-in-his-snowy-field rollout for his upcoming album, due on Feb. 2? Three days ago, a teaser trailer for his “Man of the Woods” album had the voice of Jessica Biel promising an album that “feels like mountains, trees, campfires, like wild west.”
The video for “Filthy,” however, bypasses nature and heads directly to an android-filled “Westworld” — or Futureworld, actually, as in, back to the “FutureSex/LoveSounds” era. What the song itself reveals is that, at least as of January 5, 2018, what Timberlake still has a woody for electro-funk.
The Mark Romanek-directed video begins with a title card announcing the setting: “Pan-Asian Deep Learning Conference, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2028.” It’s still not clear whether this is supposed to be a scientific confab or product unveiling, since Timberlake is essentially in Steve Jobs drag, coming out to greet the audience in a turtleneck, white sneakers, and the kind of aviator glasses that easily could come back into fashion right around 2025. “Hey, if you know what’s good!” the future-Jobs announces to his pan-Asian learners, in a fanfare intro that’s the track’s most musically exciting moment, before ceding the stage to a wired-up, metallic man that, we all surely assume, is Timberlake in motion-capture. (At least, it would be really disappointing if we got the eventual B-roll reel and found out it was Hugh Jackman.)
What follows is pretty fun, if you’re into dancing robots. There’s a short history of 20th century hoofing on view, if you look for it: The bag of bolts breakdances, does a bit of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and, for a few glorious seconds, does some lighter-than-air Astaire and Rogers moves with a human female dancer. This being 2018/2028, there is also a nod to MTV Awards-style choreography at the 4:15 mark when we get some simulated robot/backup dancer copulation, right after the token Busby Berkeley homage shot.
All this time, the “real” Timberlake is over on the sidelines, slightly mimicking the moves he’s taught the android, like a proud papa. But hey, who’s the real one here? At the end, Timberlake starts to touch himself, and not in the good way, as video glitches appear over his body and he suddenly disappears. (Perhaps a metaphor for “They didn’t know how to end the video”?)
As for the tune itself, there isn’t much of one, by choice. It’s all about groove, which further puts you in mind of what I’m guessing was one of Timberlake’s and Romanek’s conscious antecedents for “Filthy”: Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” which came with a robot-filled video that became one of the first smashes of the MTV age. “Rockit” did have the benefit of being an instrumental, though, and you might wish “Filthy” were one, too, right about the time Timberlake is saying “What you gonna do with all that meat?/ Cookin’ up a mean serving” (a lyric you’d like to believe was composed by an algorithm that’d been fed bits of Katy Perry’s “Bon Appetit”).
Timberlake speaks more than he sings during “Filthy,” which kind of puts it on par with Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” as a first-impression track where the central hook is a simple recitation over a dance beat. The comparisons don’t end there: As Swift did prior to her album unveiling, Timberlake will be putting out a song a week before “Man of the Woods” hits February 2, and a la Swift, we can guess that some of the other songs will be less about spoken-word over big beats and more about reminding us of the performer’s melodic gifts.
Actually, if you listen to the audio-only track, which lasts 20 seconds longer than the video version, there are some clues about a segue to the other material. Over a moody outro, a female voice appears — Biel’s, probably, again? — and asks, “Do you see me? Can you find me? Look closer, through the trees. Do you see it?” So maybe “Filthy” is meant to represent the Old Justin, albeit one who’s clearly still capable of coming to the phone, still getting his sexy-back kicks in before the muse draws him into a more reflective forest. So, for anyone who was confused that “Filthy” seems like the antithesis of what Timberlake was promising for the new album, don’t fear! We may get a bluegrass ballad yet.