Song Review – Justin Timberlake & Chris Stapleton’s “Say Something”

The first thing you need to understand about Chris Stapleton’s duet with Justin Timberlake called “Say Something” is that you haven’t heard it yet. You think you’ve heard it, but you haven’t. You were at work on Thursday, milling on Facebook when you were supposed to be filling out expense reports when you saw a link to a video and went searching for your earbuds. I would bet that the majority of the people reading this sentence right now—maybe as high as 80%—saw the video, and have yet to hear the actual track. Or they saw the video first, and that is where an opinion was formed.

Not to say that the actual track is a dramatic departure from the video, because it isn’t. But they are different arrangements, and if you’re coming to this thing as a country or roots or Chris Stapleton fan, the audio track will be a more favorable experience, especially since it doesn’t start you off with a bad taste in your mouth from watching J-Lake standing behind a sample console composing electronic beats.

What happened to Justin Timberlake making a country record, or at least including some country or “earthy” Americana on it? I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is what Justin Timberlake said himself, which is that he was going to move to Nashville and make a country record. He said as much, and in as many words. His producer Timbaland said the same thing, and when pressed, doubled down. So where is it? Maybe they got cold feet after trying to release “Drink You Away” to country radio in late 2015. And realizing country radio doesn’t give a shit who you are, or how good your song is, if you don’t kiss its rings and jerk its DJ’s off under the table they won’t play you. So maybe Timberlake & co. decided to bail on the idea, or at least augment it.

But even now after the release of “Say Something,” we still don’t have confirmation that Man of the Woods won’t have more country or rootsy material on it. We’ve heard exactly 18.75% of the songs on the record, and only the ones that are being cherry picked as Top 40 pop singles accompanied by videos. There is supposed to be one more single and video release after this one for a total of four. So I’m not trying to hold out hope beyond reality that Timberlake may still deliver to those country fans wanting to hear his take on the genre. But there is still an 81.25% chance that material is yet to come. Or maybe it won’t. Or maybe it will, but it will suck. We just don’t know. Still.

However “Say Something”—the studio track that is—delivers somewhat on Timberlake’s more updated promise of Man of the Woods being “Americana with 808’s.” 808 refers to a type of industry standard rhythm composer, similar but not exactly like the one Timberlake is seen toying with at the beginning of the video. “Say Something” also features a decidedly Gospel styling indicative of much of Americana, where acts like The McCrary Sisters are treated like goddesses, and are mainstays of Americana functions. So regardless of how you feel about the track, “Americana with 808’s” is not a too far off assessment.

It’s pretty incredible how so many listening to this track are getting swept up in trying to decide how country or Americana it is or isn’t, and are missing the underlying message that is at the heart of this song, and is also its greatest asset and saving grace. The message of “Say Something” is the attempt to impart the wisdom of choosing your words before you speak, choosing your battles with others in the public and private realm, and understanding the virtue of not speaking up in certain circumstances. And it’s something that all of us should heed.

This very issue came up on Saving Country Music, when the opinion was shared that country stars shouldn’t be guilted into speaking on political matters. That in itself was seen as controversial, with one individual saying, “silence is equal to violence”—flying in the face of centuries of teachings by Buddhist and Catholic monks, and other countless men and women of wisdom that put the highest of value in the communion with one’s inner voice, and the virtue of listening. The idea that individuals must speak on certain issues is what has led to a lot of the divisiveness and turmoil of today. And Timberlake himself has interfaced with this issue as meddling Millennial think piece writers diabolically obsessed with the fact that he’s white have lashed him for not becoming more politically involved. Chris Stapleton has also drawn a similar ire.

“Say Something” says a lot with so few words. But it’s also extremely repetitive, leaning on one smart line until it starts to become strained, and eventually crumbles beneath the weight of the whole song. Six songwriters to come up with so little copy? And though it’s easy to get lost in the revolving lyricism and music of “Say Something” the first couple of times, subsequent listens result in boredom. Okay, we get it. Sometimes checking yourself before you speak is smart. What else you got? Unfortunately the answer with “Say Something” is “not much.” Sure, the blend of Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton’s voice is pretty great. But it could have been used for so much better, like a song with a story, or at least more than five lines of verse instead of repetitive choruses, post-choruses, and a bridge that is the same line three times.

That’s the beauty of country music verses hip-hop, or EDM-infused pop. There is depth and story. It’s the reason why so many country fans put on a sour face when they hear what is supposed to be country succumbing to these ultra modern influences that drain the emotionalism out of the music.

But “Say Something” is not supposed to be country. So judging it as such is improper. And if Chris Stapleton wants to sing with Timberlake on this song, how does that somehow erode either his country cred or integrity? Did Willie face a similar scrutiny for working with Julio Iglesias? Yes, he did. And guess what, it was still fine because it was a good song. Unfortunately with this one, this song is just marginal.

Yet the people giving Stapleton shit for this song hated him anyway, though they lauded him when he was unpopular. Now he’s just one of their pawns in the culture war. Stapleton has become more polarizing to country purists than Sam Hunt, and that’s not hyperbole. They believe he is destroying country music, that he’s a liar and a complete fake, and wrote all the worst popular country songs of the last half decade. They should be infinitely happy Stapleton is the biggest thing in country music at the moment, and not Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, Sam Hunt, or Florida Georgia Line.

But oh how fast we forget, and how easy we hate. That’s why it’s important sometimes to stop and listen before you speak. And if you do, you’ll discover “Say Something” isn’t really that bad for what it’s supposed to be. But it is a disappointment that these two could have taken advantage of an opportunity to bridge two worlds of music and deliver an important message, and that it all kind of got lost in the styling, and the debate about genre. Ultimately “Say Something” feels like much of pop—fleeting. But it’s still better than the vast majority of country radio. Just like Stapleton.


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