The Hard Stuff
Label: RCA RECORDS LABEL
The ramp-up to the Tennessee-bred ex-teen-dream’s fifth post-N Sync album recalled earlier blue-eyed soul honky cat Elton John seeking country comfort among howling owls in the woods. And while initial pre-release singles “Filthy” and “Supplies” incorporated au courant skippity slippery beats, noises in the mix, sublimated vocals (after a Robert Plant-screechy hard rock opening), film noir duskiness and dancehall interjections, much of the rest at least hints at contemporary country: a purple Prince homage co-written by Toby Keith over Bubba Sparxxx-rustic hoedown funk (“Sauce”); a Sam Hunt-via-Kid Rock hick-hop title cut with basslines walking on the wide side; Americana country-soul duets with Alicia Keys and Chris Stapleton, who also helped write the (also Kid Rock-reminiscent) honky-tonk blues ballad “The Hard Stuff”; a number called “Live Off the Land” that feels legitimately down-to-earth. The Neptunes and Timbaland let EDM-updated throwback disco roll through elsewhere, while Justin’s spouse Jessica Biel whispers sweet ghostly nothings, and their little boy baby-babbles toward the end.