Justin Timberlake – “Man of the Woods”

(Photo Credit: That Grape Juice)Grade: D+

Key Tracks: “Supplies,” “Breeze off the Pond”

Let’s be perfectly clear here – this iteration of Renaissance Man Justin Timberlake is different than the one we saw on 2013’s double “The 20/20 Experience.” We know this because of the cover, where a picture of him in a suit is cut by him(/someone) in jeans and flannel, and also because he told us. In reality, our “Renaissance Man” doesn’t have many hats on his rack. This album (somehow only his fourth solo work) proves that he is incapable of stretching out of pop’s limitations, even if he stretches those limitations in multiple directions. He’s a great singer, better dancer and one-time denim enthusiast, but he’s only a decent songwriter and remains vapidly unaware of both boundaries and genre authenticity.

This album actually has some great moments – at 16 songs and 66 minutes, it has to. But we need to dive into the album’s most egregious moments, most of which work to actively discredit the title and premise. Timberlake is a Memphis native – a city within state lines of the country’s best music city. And he attempts to use that heritage to prove that he has a woodsy background; a background that rarely shows its face throughout the album. This should be an easy sell for an ambitious and malleable artist who could cherrypick collaborators. I mean, the guy has “timber” and “lake” in his name. Instead, tracks like opener “Filthy” and “Morning Light” fall back on pop conventions, which are decidedly un-woodsy. The latter features Alicia Keys, who had a massive hit about her home city of New York, a city so decisively un-woodsy that a salsa company ran a whole ad campaign about it. The album’s front half features some songs that are pure pop and, even though he grows into the image more as it transpires, it starts the album off with a joltingly off-brand start.

Also, I have to talk about the filthy lyrics. I’m not even referring to the song “Filthy.” I’m referring to the back-to-back genital-drying lyrics of “Sauce” and “Man of the Woods.” Early on in “Sauce,” Timberlake sings “I love your pink, you like my purple / The color right between those, that’s where I worship.” Ewwwwwwww. And it only gets worse, a whole lot worse on the following track. The song is about the mutual love he has for his wife Jessica Biel, but lyrically it sure doesn’t sound that way – “So tonight, if I take it too far, that’s okay because you know … I hear the making up’s fun.” This is uhhhhhhh this is a song by a man currently in a Woody Allen film. I would like to revert you to the pic of Timberlake wearing a #TimesUp pin. And the chorus is just awful: “But then your hands talking, fingers walking, down your legs / There’s the faucet,” he sings. Please take your sexy back. Here’s a fun fact to leave you with: he named this filthy song after his infant son.

Major authenticity issues and gross lyrics aside, this album does have some enjoyable tracks. Country sensation Chris Stapleton helps actually ground “Say Something” in the vague indie-country-folk world Timberlake thinks he’s invading. Other tracks like “Supplies” and “Breeze Off the Pond” are pleasantly enjoyable songs, the former mashing flamenco-inspired guitar with trap beats, one of the album’s most interesting ideas. The latter is the best example of the acoustic-driven vocal songs that dominate the album’s back half. Even some early tracks like the Pharrell-co-authored “Midnight Summer Jam,” are delightful if not empty tracks. Even the pre-release ridicule of “Flannel” is a little deflated, as the track is frustratingly enjoyable.

Still, there’s far too many faults on this album. Ugly missteps run hand-in-hand through the city, and any escapes into the woods are mere digressions. What is essentially the opening line on this album is “haters gonna say it’s fake.” When’s the last time you heard Justin Vernon say that? Merle Haggard? Just being from an area does not make you an automatic herald of the culture. I’m from Boston but I’m not gonna jump into a perfect street-punk career at 27. I mean, there’s a damn reggae song on this album. So while there are some surprisingly pleasant moments, and Timberlake may remain an annoyingly pleasant celebrity figure, I have to end this with a question: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one’s around to care, should you bother listening for it?

-By Andrew McNally

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Pharrell – “G I R L”

(Photo Credit: Hollywood Reporter)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Hunter” “Gust of Wind”

This was a risky time for Pharrell to release a solo album. He’s riding the waves of one of the most successful years someone in music can have. He had guest spots on the two biggest songs of last summer – “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” and he co-wrote and produced two songs on Beyonce’s instant-legend self-titled album. He wore a silly, hip-hop-historical and now famous hat to the Grammy’s, and he released a 24 hour music video for his big hit, “Happy.” Pharrell is, nowadays, now famous for producing and guest spots, hugely overshadowing his solo work and his music with N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. So if “G I R L” were to be underwhelming, it would likely derail the ever-increasing speed of the train that Pharrell is at the helm of. Luckily, “G I R L” is a sufficient pop release. It isn’t the most memorable of albums, but it strongly benefits from an all-inviting sound, a consistent feminist agenda, and huge name guest spots from Pharrell’s long, long contact list.

Pharrell tried to hit all bases with “G I R L,” and he certainly succeeds. It’s sexy – like the sweaty “Hunter.” It’s classy, with opener “Marilyn Monroe.” And it’s friendly – centered around the smash hit “Happy,” which seems to actually be stylized on the album as “Happy (from Despicable Me 2).” You know, the kids movie. The very next song is “Come Get It Bae,” featuring the not-family-friendly Miley Cyrus. Whatever your fancy is with pop music, “G I R L” likely hits it.

The guest spots, though usually not the focus of a review, are something to marvel at. As mentioned, Miley drops in. And so do Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Kelly Osbourne, a very falsetto-y Justin Timberlake, Timbaland (relegated to beatboxing) and, unpredictably, JoJo. And the strings on the album – arranged by Hans Zimmer. The cast on this album reads like a Wes Anderson movie. And just like an Anderson film – some of the appearances are solely based on “look who I got to be here!,” while some, especially Daft Punk, add a whole level of depth and help separate each track from the next.

And it’s good that each song is distinct enough to stand out – because Pharrell, on his own, isn’t actually all that strong. The rare moments when he raps on the album work, but otherwise, his voice usually just blends into the background. Think about “Happy” – his voice only overpowers the music because the music is minimal during the chorus, and it’s catchy because of how his voice acts as an instrument, not for the lyrics. There are moments where he ups into falsetto, and he really doesn’t hit the notes. There are a couple moments were it resembles watching a Top 12 American Idol giving what you just know is their last performance. It just isn’t quite there, overall. But it’s a boatload of fun, so it’s never an issue.

“G I R L” is all linked together by a distinctly feministic tone. It’s almost possible to see this – and “Get Lucky” and his work on Beyonce’s album – as an apology for the gut-wrechnigly misogynist (and possibly divorce-causing) “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell sometimes skirts the lines of male pop feminism – respecting women’s bodies and sexual desires, etc., and sometimes fully delves into actual feminism. It helps to create a consistent tone, and let’s be real, it’s just nice to hear. Inviting feminist-leaning artists like Daft Punk, Timberlake and the severely misunderstood Miley Cyrus only helps that. The era of patriarchal sex-pop is coming to a close, and Pharrell seems to be the one locking the doors.

So “G I R L” only suffers from Pharrell himself not being the most talented singer. And given that this is his first solo album in eight years, it’s not his specialty. He produced the whole album, and wrote every song, much more his strong suits. The album is not the most memorable, because it all feels familiar. But it’s still enjoyable and every song is unique. It sounds by the books, if every song was taken from a different book than the one previous. “G I R L” is a listen for those of all ages and musical preferences. There’s something for everyone, and his “music for everyone” approach helps to bolster the feminist themes. “G I R L” won’t be one of the albums of the year, but it’s a more than decent pop release, and one that will help Pharrell continue his unstoppable reign.

-By Andrew McNally

Justin Timberlake – “The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2”

(Photo credit: thelineofbestfit.com)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “True Blood,” “Take Back the Night”

It’s rare that the second album in a double album is an improvement over the first (look at the mediocre “Use Your Illusion 2,” “Hypnotize” and the second disc of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”). But when it does happen, it’s usually because the musician has used up the potential singles and leaves more room to move around. This isn’t necessarily true of this double album, as “Take Back the Night” might be the safest song across either disc, but the ambition is just a little stronger on Part 2. Despite the clunky title.

The second track, “True Blood,” might be over nine minutes and might be about vampires, but the song adds a bit of depth to the beat and achieves that soulful sound Timberlake tried so hard to find on Part 1. And it transitions, beat and all, into “Cabaret,” an equally great and more modestly-long song that has a well-needed guest stop from Drake. Second single “TKO” is a bland seven minutes, but leadoff single “Take Back the Night” is a catchy number, whose horns and moderate tempo call back to Part 1′s “Suit & Tie.” Musically, the album’s more diverse, making it more listenable.

But, like Part 1, it has many faults. The average song length here is around 5:30, as opposed to Part 1′s 7:00. But at 74 minutes, it’s just as long and bloated as it’s 70 minute partner. the album has a lot of great ideas, but the songs are neither experimental enough to be original or conventional enough to be memorable smashes. They exist in a weird in-between, where they’re mainly all great songs that just go on for 2-5 minutes too many. And that’s not good. Also, Timberlake’s lyrics have been consistently mediocre across the two parts. The worst offender here is “Only When I Walk Away,” where Timberlake profanely curses out someone for only loving him when he leaves. Not only does hearing Timberlake swear like this sound uncomfortable, it’s not believable for a man who is so openly in love with his wife. But the worst offender is the other guest spot, Jay-Z. His summer keeps pushing him further and further from the top, and it continues as he raps about Yoko Ono’s vagina (?) on a song called “Murder.” Maybe poorly timed, as Ono just released a much more experimental, and much better, pop album.

Luckily for Timberlake, these two albums are inherently likable. They’re always catchy, the transitions between ideas are strong, and they’re fun. Almost every song stretches far past a comfortable zone, but sometimes you can get lost in it (“True Blood” especially). The only objectively bad song is, unfortunately, the bonus track that closes the album. “Pair of Wings” has both the acoustic tenderness and lyrical cheese of an N*SYNC throwaway. Otherwise, the album is enjoyable. It’s bold, it’s ambitious and it’s good enough to be a very entertaining pop album, reigning in an age of otherwise unoriginal pop singers.

-By Andrew McNally

Jay-Z – “Magna Carta Holy Grail”

Photo Credit: hypetrak.com

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Jay Z Blue,” “Oceans”

“Watch the Throne,” the rap experiment from Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011 must have left a mark on both performers. Both Jay and Kanye released albums this summer that showed growth and change as performers. But where Kanye’s “Yeezus” was a tormented work of introspective loyalty and political consciousness, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is just an album of basic beats and repetitive lyrics about Jay-Z’s wealth. Jay-Z is said to be worth about $500 million alone, plus the wealth of his equally-famous wife, Beyonce. His ‘change’ is a further disconnect from his own fans, where his constant rapping about European vacation destinations sounds more like bragging to an audience than typical lyrical boasts. Rap & hip-hop is typically a young man’s game, and with Jay’s 43 years bringing him twelve platinum albums and partial ownerships in a nightclub chain and a professional basketball team, he is officially too far into the entrepreneurial world to sound fresh and real in the hip-hop world.

The album is not all bad. “Part II (On the Run)” features typically amazing work from Beyonce, and “BBC” is a fun song because of it’s guest spots: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz. “Jay Z Blue” is a brutally honest song about his daughter, and how he fears comparisons to his own father who was never around but for very different reasons. And “Oceans” features a well-placed guest spot from Frank Ocean, on a song about the film “Ocean’s 11″ being a metaphor for Jay’s accumulation of wealth.

Some tracks are just bad. The opener “Holy Grail” which also features Timberlake, is a bombastic call for receiving a legendary status, as Jay and JT channel Kurt Cobain and harmonize on an amended version of the chorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Not only does it sound bad, and not only does Jay already have the legendary status that he is attempting to claim to himself, but it is that kind of fame that led Cobain to suicide in the first place. The song is a dramatic misreading of Nirvana. “Somewhere in America” is the album’s worst track. Hova raps about how he’s good at math because he can count his money and than randomly mentions Miley Cyrus twerking. The song sounds like Jay freestyling a joke song in the studio and adding serious beats to it to make it a real track.

Other than the feeble Nirvana reference, there are some delightfully surprising references and soundclips on the album. Sinatra and Johnny Cash get reworkings that work much better than Cobain’s. M.I.A. and R.E.M. also get references. The most surprising, and haunting, is a soundclip from “Mommie Dearest” that leads in to “Jay Z Blue.” Where the album has some interesting references and clips, it is lacking in guest spots. A majority of the songs are just Jay-Z, and with the repetitive lyrics, it starts to get pretty old pretty quickly. Overall, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is a very safe album that takes no chances whatsoever and sounds disconnected and pointless because of it. Hova is just too far out of reality to relate to any listener besides those that already appear on the money-drenched album.

One final note: the album was famously released to Samsung Galaxy users a week ahead of time. This irked me in two ways. As a Galaxy user who downloaded the album, I had to sign away the rights to all of my personal privacy in order to get the album. I’m personally expecting a bodyguard to show up at my door soon after I publish this and question why I didn’t like the album. With the NSA leaks and Hova’s past songs against privacy concerns, this didn’t even make sense. Also, I didn’t even get the album until Saturday, something like four days after I was supposed to, which almost negated the point entirely. Even then, the app died twice throughout playing the album. The album is already platinum and Jay already has millions because of it, but at what cost to his fans?

In conclusion, here’s a screenshot from the commercial that advertised the album that accurately sums up the problems:

Jay-Z is, at the end of the day, an adult father. And at the end of the day, this was an album that was advertised on television.

-By Andrew McNally

The Lonely Island – “The Wack Album”

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I F****d My Aunt,” “The Compliments”

“The Wack Album” is more of an amalgamate of ideas. The band throws a lot of ideas at the wall,and as soon as one starts to get stale, they move on to the next. Not everything works, but some stick very well. Only two tracks from this album were viral sensations from “SNL,” a show which none of the three members are a part of anymore. This has allowed them to expand into some new territories, with mixed results.

Comedy troupes that spoof hip-hop are certainly not a new thing. It is a very tired route for comedians to take, thanks to the Internet. The Lonely Island were by no means one of the first groups to do it, but they were among the first of the Internet era (remember “Lazy Sunday”? The song aired on “SNL” eight years ago). The Lonely Island have come under the ironic problem of having to sidestep the generic hip-hop parodies that they helped spawn. “The Wack Album,” their third full-length, has its hits and misses. The guest list on the album is as expansive as anyone could possible ask for: Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, the return of T-Pain, Kendrick Lamar, Adam Levine, Kristin Wiig and Hugh Jackman, among others. The guest stars, all having fun in the studio, help to add to the album’s theme of spoofing the very foundations of hip-hop.

The best bits on the album are the ones that have the simplest concepts. “The Compliments” is the three band members – Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone – simply complimenting each other, making fun of insult songs. The song features the best guest spot, from rapper Too $hort, who has no idea what he is doing there. “Meet the Crew” is a parody of rappers constantly saying their own names in songs by being a band introduction with many, crazy personalities (ending with Rod Stewart, played by Samberg). “I F****d My Aunt” has the band members (and T-Pain) recounting childhood memories and following them up with “and [x] years later I f****d my aunt.” It’s an incredibly simple concept with no context, and works well because of it. The album’s best tracks all share this.

The more inventive and inspired bits actually do not work as well here. “YOLO” and “3-Way” are well thought-out, but regular “SNL” viewers are already familiar with those two tracks. “I Run NY” features Samberg rapping from the perspective of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. The song’s inspiration was, inventively so, to spoof all NYC rappers that claim to own the city. But the song falls flat as it quickly becomes a bit about Bloomberg saying profane things he would never say normally. “I Don’t Give a Honk” and “Hugs” cancel each out, as both songs are about replacing the F-word with a safer term, neither of which are very funny. Finally, “Diaper Money” is rapping from the perspective of a married man, but a very profane one, and it all doesn’t really make sense. The Lonely Island have never been ones to stray away from crude and bodily humor (“Dick In a Box” won them an Emmy), which is why the more inspired ideas end up missing. The characters themselves tend not to make sense. “The Wack Album” is at it’s best when the trio, guests or not, are stripped down and working solely with funny concepts.

If You like this, try: “The Sounds of Science,” the Beastie Boys box set that contains some of their lesser-known funny songs. Another white trio from NY that revolutionized comedy-rap.

-By Andrew McNally