Eric Renner Brown
January 05, 2018 AT 01:57 PM EST

We gave it a C

When pop wizard Justin Timberlake announced his fourth album, Man of the Woods, earlier this week, many speculated he was signaling a reboot. Here was one of the young century’s most successful chart-toppers dropping a Revenant-style pastoral teaser lined with acoustic guitars — and promising a collection of songs honoring family life and his Tennessee roots, to boot. No matter that he’d named the impending lead single “Filthy.” Maybe the title referenced muddied Carhartts or a rusted axe blade.

Hopes of that new Timberlake died — for the time being, at least — early Friday, when the 36-year-old released “Filthy,” a stuttering mess of electronic and funk that, down to its knock-off Apple keynote music video, is almost comically removed from the Southern countryside. But the problem isn’t so much that Timberlake faked out fans by recruiting longtime producers Timbaland and Danja in what could read as a search for more dancefloor gold. It’s that the song, which follows 2016’s narcotic No. 1 smash “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” is among the worst he’s ever released.

Timberlake’s attempt to Frankenstein his brand of pop with contemporary electronic sounds might cause whiplash as “Filthy” vacillates between laptop-generated squelches and a more organic groove. He cruises from chorus to verse — there’s not really anything differentiating the two — tossing off vapid lyrics (“Look, put your filthy hands all over me/And no, this ain’t the clean version”) over a meandering, structureless instrumental. When an over-the-top stadium-rock bridge arrives, things only deteriorate. It’s like a meme: “Listens to Prince once.”

Lyrically, “Filthy” contradicts Timberlake’s Man of the Woods announcement, where he suggested the record is “really inspired by my son, my wife, my family.” But the song’s carnal sexuality isn’t the issue — after all, this is the guy who brought sexy back, who vowed early to rock bodies. While Timberlake’s definitive hit, 2006’s “SexyBack,” was hardly substantive, it had a laser-focused lustfulness to it that, when coupled with Timbaland’s quaking beat, proved irresistible. Who’s getting turned on by lines like “caught a chill, baby, you the coldest” or “what you gonna do with all that meat?” on dancefloors or in between the sheets? Well-crafted, low-stakes sex jams don’t have to be empty; this one is.

If there’s a saving grace with “Filthy” — and finding one’s tough — it’s the fascinating noises lurking below the surface. Timberlake urged that the song should be “played very loud,” and buried in the mix are industrial screeches reminiscent of SOPHIE, the outré electronic producer who infused recent projects by Vince Staples and Charli XCX with some of their best and weirdest moments. Vintage funk adorned with cacophonous electronica? Now there’s a Timberlake reboot that sounds intriguing. C

Man of the Woods arrives Feb. 2, two days before Timberlake performs at the Super Bowl halftime show. Watch the “Filthy” music video above.

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