Better Than: Black Snake Moan.
The last time I saw Justin Timberlake live, he was still part of *NSYNC and filling stadiums with excited children and annoyed parents for the boy band’s final tour. Since then, he’s gotten married to someone who is not Britney Spears, pursued a film career, and with every album, embarked on a brand new level of musical maturity. It started with 2002’s Justified, the rootsy R&B release that has become the template for successful male pop star maturation in the 12 years since its debut. He progressed with the even better FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006 and has most recently added the massive, two part musical “comeback” of sorts, The 20/20 Experience.
At Madison Square Garden, part of some of the last dates of the second North American leg of his world tour, Justin Timberlake was in rare form. Comeback is an inappropriate way to describe this particular performer — one with an already hefty canon of solo hits from four albums and two released within only the past year. With ease and charm, Timberlake makes the lengthy wait for new material and live performances seem like it was more than worth it all along.
See also: How To Properly Hoard *NSYNC Memorabilia
In front of a large, white screen patterned with hexagonal shapes, the singer appeared behind his Tennessee Kids — the providers of live instrumentation that have been accompanying many of Justin’s televised performances and were a prominent fixture in the show. On stage, JT became more than just a solo artist; though the star can’t help but shine ever so brightly, he allowed himself to blend with the dancers, singers and musicians as if this were a band he had been in for years. Shrouded in dim lighting as the horn section blasted behind what looked like pulpits at the altar of the Church of JT, Timberlake crooned his way through the sweetly hazy “Pusher Love Girl,” from Part I of last year’s double feature. As the band played, the star showcased his crystalline falsetto and busted out his famous moonwalk-pop-and-lock he has made a fixture in his shows since the beginning of his post-all-boy synchronized choreography days.
The opener catapulted the show into a well-crafted mix of old and new hits that made Part I of the concert an emotionally turbulent (at least for me) and exciting set. Jumping from album to album, Timberlake allowed the audience to catch the sonic similarities as easily as they could identify the differences. He stormed through an early string that began with Justified‘s refreshed disco track “Rock Your Body,” followed by 20/20 Pt. 1‘s tribal beat-laden “Don’t Hold the Wall,” which led to the sexy and underrated “FutureSex/LoveSound,” the pulsating opener from the album of the same name. For that particular throwback, as well as its follow-up “Like I Love You” and several other songs from the first half of his solo discography, the band hardened the songs, making the beats and instrumentation simultaneously trap and hard rock in a way that is less gross than it sounds. In the middle of “Like I Love You,” JT gave a quick cover of Kanye West’s “I Am a God,” which found itself nuzzled perfectly in the middle of the musical aesthetic’s weird duality before he abruptly stripped down the beginning of “My Love,” singing with only a piano accompaniment before returning to its natural pace.
After “TKO,” Timberlake took his first extended break to address the audience and sang a respectable cover of Frank Sinatra’s anthem “New York, New York.” A huge chunk of FutureSex/LoveSounds began to round out Part I before a quick “Holy Grail” detour then an enthusiastically received “Cry Me a River.” It was a great closer for the first half, and after the ten-minute intermission, Timberlake took the show into a much more 20/20 Experience-friendly direction, with the very Memphis “Drink You Away” being a country-friendly standout.
During “Let the Groove Get In,” JT floated above the audience atop a large moving piece of the stage. On the other side of MSG, he pursued more covers, including one each by his most obvious influences, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Both were outstanding and his version of “Human Nature” served as a delightful highlight, especially as he added a touch of melancholy as he returned to it after performing his single “What Goes Around…Comes Around.” Later, a version of the Ultimate Jam, Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison,” had Timberlake returning to his boy band roots as he assembled a makeshift one with two Tennessee Kids members who co-sang lead with him. It arrived in the middle of a blazing chunk of exit tracks that built up until the power trio that is “Suit & Tie,” “SexyBack,” and “Mirrors” closed out an electrifying set.
As the opening, stadium-made power-chords of the romantically cliche “Mirrors” began triumphantly, Timberlake’s exit encompassed the very essence of his power as a performer. His showmanship, class, and impeccable ease in which he can deliver an over two-hour set of music that barely allows for any time to sit, breathe or falter all boiled to those final moments as he let the fans sing back to him a song that, within its barely developed young life, has already budded into its own kind of icon, just like its creator.
Critic’s notebook and set list are on the next page.
Critical Bias: I was going to just put “I really liked him in The Social Network” as a joke for this part but I think this speaks for itself.
Overheard #1: “He’s so sweet! And cute! And literally perfect!”
Overheard #2: “This is definitely the part where he starts playing ‘Mirrors’!” — said by the people behind me every couple of songs. They were wrong for two hours straight.
Pusher Love Girl
Gimme What I Don’t Know (I Want)
Rock Your Body
Don’t Hold the Wall
Like I Love You
New York, New York (Frank Sinatra cover)
LoveStoned/I Think She Knows Interlude
Until the End of Time
Holy Grail (Jay Z cover)
Cry Me a River
Only When I Walk Away
Drink You Away
Let the Groove Get In
Heartbreak Hotel (Elvis Presley cover)
Not a Bad Thing
Human Nature (Michael Jackson cover)
What Goes Around…Comes Around
Take Back the Night
Jungle Boogie (Kool & The Gang cover)
Poison (Bell Biv DeVoe cover)
Suit & Tie
Justin Timberlake makes up for his canceled 2/19 performance tonight, Friday 2/21, at Madison Square Garden.