When Justin Timberlake released a photo of himself, Timbaland, and Pharrell almost one year ago, the caption was merely "..."—the implication needed no further explanation. He was back in the studio, working on new music, and doing so alongside the people who helped him craft the majority (if not entirety) of the solo discography we deem classic today. But there's one more person who deserved to be in the frame.
Nate Hills, commonly known by his moniker Danja, has been linked with Timbaland for the last 16 years since Timb took him under his wing around 2001. From then on, many of Timbaland's credits feature Danja as well, with the two Virgina natives working in tandem to create the scores of classic beats that came to define Timb's career. That includes JT's seminal FutureSex/LoveSounds, which boasts production credits from Danja on all but two songs.
While Timberlake's most recent album, 20/20 Experience, exclusively featured Timbaland production, Danja sat that one out as he continued to rack up impressive credits elsewhere on his own. But in the spirit of reunion implied by JT's gram, Danja is back in the fold now and he, along with Timbaland, is behind the boards for our first slice of Man of the Woods, the decidedly non-woodsy "Filthy." Despite an album trailer that seemed to promise a straight up country collection, the song sounds much more like a FutureSex-indebted choice for a lead single.
With JT's intended direction more mysterious than ever now, Complex hopped on the phone with Danja after the release of "Filthy" to get some clarity and hints ahead of Man of the Woods.
The album trailer dropped, and the scenery and certain lines of dialogue had everyone thinking that Justin made a country album. "Filthy" is most definitely not a country song. Is it an outlier? What can we really expect for the sound of the album?
I think the trailer is very accurate to the landscape of the project. I don't know who ever said he was making a country album [Laughs]. You know, he's always mixing a lot of different things together. It's always funk, R&B, soul, hip-hop, country—he definitely is very, like you said, personal in terms of subject matter and the feeling of it and the essence of the project will have some of those grassroots element.
"Filthy" actually starts the album. In what ways does it kind of set the tone for what's to come?
I like to think of "Filthy" as the disruption between the world we're living in and his world. The world that he's living in with his family, his friends that he came up with, his musical roots and everything. We're gonna go into, easily, the other type of feelings and vibes of his album that were kind of presented in the trailer. So, "Filthy" was just that kick in the door: "I'm here, and oh by the way, let me erase everything that you've been listening to, that you've been vibing to, all of this emotional, tropical island-y, vibe-y stuff that the world has gotten into, let me disrupt the order, the world order and kind of create a new world order" with this world that he grew up in.
That's interesting that you cite those sonic examples, because I was gonna ask later, what does JT think of pop's current landscape? You know, he's been gone a while, so what were the conversations and the sessions like between you guys about what's going on in music right now?
We didn't have any conversations about the current state of music and that's what we always do. We go in the studio and just do what we feel. This time around, I just feel like he had more of a direction. Like, when we did FutureSex/LoveSounds, we didn't have any conversations of direction or what's going on in the current state of music. We went in and had fun and made music. So, this time around, he definitely knew what he wanted to do. I had parameters, I had guidelines. Myself and Timb, we knew the world that we had to be in and we had to create within that world, but we didn't think about, oh yeah, this is what's going on out there and this is what we need.
Of course we're gonna think about it as producers, and know what to do to kind of bridge everything together, but I think the decision ultimately came down to, forget about what's happening now, we're gonna just answer up everything that's going on currently. It doesn't even matter. This is what we do.
What were some of those parameters that he gave you?
It's literally verbatim within the trailer. He wants to talk about these things or more— how can I put it? The word country was never used in the discussions. Just Memphis. That's what it really was. I remember walking into the studio, and I'm like, "So, what's the vibe?" He just raised his hands up like, "This is the vibe." And what he had on was a flannel, some Adidas, some jeans. He had his beard and a skully on. That was the vibe. When you look at his album cover, the other half of the cover of the artwork is him in a flannel and some jeans and exactly what he told me in the studio. And it was Memphis, and he put up a board in the studio that had influences from Memphis. And I was like, oh okay, so I'm gonna do a record pertaining to this. And, that's what it was.
Speaking of the trailer, in one part you hear Jessica Biel say— she uses words like mountains, campfires, and Wild West to describe the album. But, I'm gonna assume she wasn't talking about "Filthy".
[Laughs] I don't think she's talking about that. It's tough to say. If you wanna create a world based on those words and somehow, "Filthy" is in it. "Filthy" is the— like I said, it's the kind of in-between thing, that jump-off thing that kinda wipes the palette clean for him to be able to tell the story that he wants to tell. I can't say that "Filthy" was described in the trailer, but "Filthy" played its role in the whole album.
When did the sessions for this album start up, pretty much?
Man, he was working on it for a while. I can't even say a start point.
Well, when did you turn up?
I came in, more-so, top of 2017, in January. And I was kinda in and out, up until he finished it sometime later in the year.
You mentioned how "Filthy" is kind of a disruptor, and it really does sound similar to “SexyBack” in that way. So, I look at that, and I look at him bringing you back, Timb back, the Neptunes back, and it seems like he's trying to recreate some of his most successful sounds for the modern era, is that fair to say?
Yeah, that's fair to say. I wouldn't say he's trying to recreate anything. He's just successful with everybody that you've just named, so why not go to the ones that you did your most groundbreaking music with? Justified, it did its thing. FutureSex and 20/20, they all were different. You know? It creates a body of work for his entire catalog. His catalog isn't going to sound the same, by any means.
But it is going to sound very cohesive, and it's not going to sound like he's got sore thumbs all over the place. You know, it's like Michael and Thriller and Bad and Off the Wall. All of those done by Quincy Jones. The same brains working together and evolving over the years. That's what it is. I don't think he's trying to recreate. It wasn't trying to recreate “SexyBack” or 20/20, it was— you know, what's the chance of getting what you're looking for, musically, if you get in the room with the same brains you've been collaborating with? I think the chances are high.
I hear you have two more beats on the album. What can you preview about those songs?
One you're gonna hear soon. The other one is in the world of the man of the woods. [Laughs] Both of them, actually, are in that world.
I was running through some of his old songs, and he's got a couple really great, not quite country, but folksy type songs like "Drink You Away" and stuff like that.
I love "Drink You Away." "Drink You Away" was, in a sense, a preview. If you want any idea, that would be the closest thing to what you might hear. I don't feel like that's accurate, either. It's not anything that you've heard from him. The album is just very, very— he explored a lot, and he put a lot of things together. He has those classic Memphis moments. Anything that you might hear from Memphis, whether it's country bop, blues, soul— he's put everything Memphis into that project. Tennessee.
Speaking of Tennessee, it's too bad that we couldn't get Three 6 Mafia on this album.
[Laughs] I know, I wish we did have a space for them. Juicy J is the man.
20/20 was full of songs that didn't really have any interest in convention. Their runtimes are very long, there were experimental sounds that weren't elsewhere on the radio. Are we going to see more of that here?
I'd say February 2nd is your chance to check it out. I can't let too many secrets out. To be honest— I haven't heard the whole thing put together.
Even at the end of "Filthy," that's something that I didn't hear after we finished the mix. I don't know know how we're going into the next song. I don't know some of the interludes. He really was in his own world putting the album together how he wanted to put it together. I'm getting surprises like everyone else. I didn't know what the video was gonna look like, I didn't know a lot of different things. So, I'm sitting on the side like a spectator and a fan like everybody else. I'm waiting to hear it all put together and hear the final product. I don't really know too much.
What was the collaboration process like this time, the same as past albums?
I would say so. Once you have a formula or a chemistry that’s just the way you work. Like I said, we had more guidelines and parameters this time, but that was it. But we’d go off and do our thing, come up with what we came up with and he’d come in and write to it and figure out how he wanted to approach it. And he’d hop on guitar or whatever—he’s very hands-on. Justin is a producer, he’s not just labeled as one because he’s the biggest name and it’s his album. He’s actually hands-on, he’ll hit some keys, play guitar, he plays on a lot of this album. He’s a musician. He didn’t just sit back and let us do our thing and figure it out. We figured it out together.
I’m excited to hear it. Shifting gears to your work elsewhere, you produced one of the highest profile tracks last year in “Shining” with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Recently, Jay’s kind of re-energized the rumor mill surrounding them having a joint album. So, with regards to “Shining,” I was wondering if you had any more work in the stash with them or if those sessions hinted at where they might end up going with a full project?
I’ve heard the same hints and in a sense I wait in the wings and make music until my number is called. I don’t have anything else in the pan with them. But “Shining” was DJ Khaled, it was a brainchild of his. We collaborated on the record and he sent me ideas and I made the track based on what he was looking for, then he went and did the DJ Khaled thing and put the song together. I would definitely love to be on a Jay-Beyoncé joint album if it’s coming, but I also know that Jay’s been touring and he’s pretty much just wrapping up, so I’m sure they’re in album mode. Then again, Beyonce could be in solo mode. But I’ve been busy with JT, but now I can really dip into some of the other things going on and present some music. But I've definitely been creating and I got some things that they would kill, I would love to be a part of that project. But “Shining” was a one-off situation.
What else do you have going on or in the works?
Man, a lot of things I just want to keep under wraps until it becomes real. But I’ve been very active in the studio writing a lot, creating a lot and doing what I do until it’s time to present to the world.