First Listen: Justin Timberlake's "Man of the Woods"

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for American Express

Justin Timberlake’s fifth album, Man of the Woods, doesn’t come out until February 2 but American Express Platinum Card and Centurion Members got to hear it early this week at two exclusive listening parties the artist hosted in Manhattan. The record, which reunites Timberlake with producers Timbaland, Pharrell, and Danja, is an ode to his rural Tennessee roots, mixing blues and country strains into his trademark falsetto-inflected dance-pop R&B.

The Amex team transformed Skylight Clarkson Square, a cavernous West Village event space, into a pop-up forest for the occasion, evoking the sylvan theme of the album. Adding to the lumberjack chic vibe were the hors d’oeuvres from NOMA, the hallowed Copenhagen restaurant founded by the food world’s own man of the woods, forager-chef Rene Redzepi. Amuse-bouches ranged in adventurousness from black truffle on fermented cauliflower flatbread to grasshopper-stuffed aeblekivers, one of two grasshopper-centric offerings.

“It’s not actual grasshoppers, so you’re safe,” said Timberlake in kicking off the evening. “At least that’s what I was told. I ate a lot of them.” (The culinary school student who spread the green paste between translucent flat leaves of cabbage assured me that it was, in fact, real grasshopper.)

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for American Express

Wearing an urban-forest-appropriate outfit—shearling-lined jean jacket, knit beanie, camo pants—Timberlake then introduced the record. The title, he said, was a tribute to his two-year-old son, Silas, whose name derives from the Latin for “living in the woods.”

“This is my new album,” he said. “We’re gonna play it for you now at an unspeakable volume.” As the opening track, “Filthy”—released as a single earlier this month—put the subwoofers to work, Timberlake mingled into a sea of flannel shirts.

I asked him where, aside from right there and right then, was the ideal place to listen to this album, and after a short pause for reflection, he said, “Anywhere outside.” I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re trying to clear the area of wildlife. Man of the Woods is not designed to be played at a reasonable volume. It’s infectiously danceable, and some of the best work of his career.

Standout songs include the title track, “Man of the Woods,” a country/soul amalgam with a “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”–style guitar riff; the down-home funk number “Sauce”; “Higher, Higher,” a minor-key, gospel-infused anthem; the reggae-ish “Wave”; and “Say Something,” a collaboration with country-music star Chris Stapleton.

Timberlake made his way through the crowd to dance with his wife, Jessica Biel, who, judging from her lip-synching, knew the album by heart. The beat rarely lets up, but one exception is the ballad “Morning Light,” featuring Alicia Keys, which was the occasion for an adorable Timberlake-Biel slow dance.

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