Stoned and Rethroned

Justin Timberlake reclaims his King of Arena Pop crown with nearly three hours of gleefully defied sexxlaws

As the Times has recently schooled us on both hipsters who like Justin Timberlake (an extension of the Top 40-loving crowd known in the Internet ether as "popists") and black people who like hipster rock (known to at least one Times reporter as "blipsters"), what we need now is a word for black hipsters who like Justin Timberlake. Hmm. Inevitably, I arrive at "blopists." Boom. Put it on the board. That's a full day's work where I come from. A full day's work where Justin Timberlake comes from—small-town Tennessee, as he sheepishly reminds us during an actually very sincere and endearing Sweet-Christ-I- Can't-Believe-I- Sold-Out-Madison-Square-Garden speech right before his last encore—turns out to be an unbelievable two-and-a-half hour show at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Sweet Christ. Dude has twoalbums. He did everything he could think of, and then he did another half-hour after that, and then he did "Dick in a Box." I was there. Not too many hipsters or blipsters or blopsters around, though. Just an infinite battalion of pre-teenage girls wearing makeup applied by shotgun. Also present: Donald Trump. (Hair applied by shotgun.)

(Black hipsters who like Donald Trump: "Brumpsters.")

I am not disparaging Wednesday night's MSG affair when I assert that it climaxed within 15 minutes. That's when he played "My Love," you see. Timberlake's new FutureSex/LoveSoundsis the sincere analogue to Beck's 1999 record Midnite Vultures—both are modern classics of space-age, robotic, relentlessly goofy, ludicrously oversexed white r&b with inextricable ties (Beck defies "Sexxlaws," Timberlake brings "Sexyback," etc.). But while Beck's "step inside my Hyundai/I wanna get with you (and your sister)" rhetoric was dismissed at the time as nuclear-grade irony, we're supposed to take Justin seriously when he says, "If I told you you were beautiful/Would you date me on the regular?" And we do take him seriously, because it's in the middle of "My Love." Vultures FutureSex, but "My Love" pretty much anything, those heavy-breathing synths reverberating infinitely over disembodied beatboxing and Justin's decidedly human but inhumanly sweet falsetto. Beck's record seemed to be a concept album about copulating robots; eight years later, this song is that copulation's genius love child, all grown up.

Too many arena acts assume that "loud" is an acceptable substitute for "full." At MSG, though, "My Love" was a multimedia assault—full band, full light show, full coterie of spastically gyrating backup dancers—performed on a symmetrical in-the-round stage that allowed for two front rows (on either end of the "court") and a rising center platform whereupon Justin could dance (actually dance, mind you, not just the standard run-around-and-point-at-people routine employed by Pink, whose opening set was monumentally boring with one exception, which we'll get to later). That center platform also served as a sort of TimberDome, a long vertical cylinder of see-through screens that magnified the image of the guy inside it as he toasted the city with a shot of tequila, played a bit of guitar (on "Like I Love You") or keyboard (on "Señorita"), and indulged in his usual bouts of liquid choreography that expertly recalled Michael Jackson/Prince/Usher/whoever without lingering long enough to crassly rip off (or insult) any of them. Occasionally the circular bank of lights above him dipped so low and so close to his head that it might as well have been a halo. He is just confident enough to sustain such a spectacle and just humble enough to not come off like a total douche.

He's got a big thing for piano ballads, though, the TimberDome flashing images of ghostly gospel choirs and virtual orchestras as Justin gets his Bruce Hornsby on. That's just the way it is; some things'll never change. A weirder momentum-killer was Timbaland, the hysterically (and rightfully) beloved producer of much of LoveSounds, not to mention much of the best mainstream pop sired in the last decade or so. A not-so-surprise guest, Timbaland lumbered around the stage for quite a while (the lumber-and-point-at-people routine), and spelled Justin with a quite overly long DJ set, mixing Michael Jackson and Nelly Furtado and Aaliyah and Coldplay and a track or two from his upcoming Shock Value record together with a gusto I evidently did not sufficiently appreciate. (Text message from Tom Breihan: "Holy shit dude!")

Nah. I would much rather watch Timberlake play the bashful paramour. The evening's more explicitly S-E-X-X-X-Y moments—such as the creamed-corn burlesque of "Damn Girl," occasioning much awkward backup-dancer groping—will never send the shotgun-makeup crowd into paroxysms of desire quite like a hint of vulnerability, of please-date-me-on-the-regular sheepishness and uncertainty. "Love Stoned" best illustrates the parodox that doubting your sexual prowess only magnifies it—it carries echoes of the wanton synth/beatbox tandem that drives "My Love," but its ubiquitous flashing lights only blind and disorient and confuse our hero, and a two-minute coda slows the beat down and affects a more lonesome, guitar-driven emo vibe as Timberlake mournfully croons, "I think that she knows/Think that she knows," as in "knows that I'm hopelessly smitten and my ass is grass." It's LoveSounds' most beautiful moment (Justin's very own "Little Red Corvette"), and served as the MSG show's most poignant, the bruised heart beating beneath nearly three hours of deliriously garish spectacle. Pretty great.

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