The basic details: Justin took to the stage at 1:30am after the end of the VMAs, where he won 2 moonmen. Performance lasted one and a half hours, and onstage guest performers included Timbaland, Pharrell, Black Eyed Peas, and John Mayer sat in on guitar all evening. Except for guest songs and a brief interlude of "On Broadway", all songs were from the current album, Justified.
The most obvious comparison being made about Justin Timberlake, having had an unequivocal critical and commercial success with his first solo album since leaving the confines of his five-man boy band, is that he’s following Michael Jackson’s footsteps, and that Justified is his Off the Wall. In terms of being a hit, but not a massive one, and in earning him credibility outside of the carefully-controlled world of the teen idol, the comparison seems valid, especially after Timberlake explicitly evoked Jackson’s moves and mannerisms in his first solo performances. But having seen his loose, electrifying, surprisingly mature performance after last week’s Video Music Awards, it seems that Justin’s taking a whole different tack than his erstwhile mentor, who was said to have been in attendance at the early morning show.
Following his stop by the VMAs to pick up a couple of moonmen, JT took to the stage about half an hour after his scheduled 1:00am show time, casually dressed and seemingly full of energy. Though he’s still in the midst of an arena tour with Christina Aguilera that’s presumably burdened with the usual bevy of dancers, pyrotechnics, and special effects, the buzz on these late-night shows has been the promise of a live band, real singing and playing, and an "authentic" JT performance, informed by Timberlake’s avowed influences, which include Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and Jackson himself.
The first surprise of the evening was the appearance of a second guitarist sitting in with the band. John Mayer, also fresh from the VMAs, was gamely taking a place in the band, spending the evening sounding his way through the set list with aplomb. Even better, he wasn’t asked to perform any of his noodling mumble-rock all night. So far, so good.
Kicking off the set was a frenetic, honest-to-god rock and roll version of "Cry Me A River". The best song on the album, the best single of the year, and this was perhaps the best version I’ve heard. Real guitars, spot-on backup singers, and jamming on the song, including the first appearance of JT’s surprisingly credible beatboxing skills. The audience seemed a bit hesitant, perhaps even taken aback, and I suspect that part of the problem was that this was an arena show audience, unfamiliar with the standard R&B show convention of breaking a song down, showcasing the band, and relying on a bandleader to guide the proceedings. They were, as on several later songs, slow to recognize the track if it was played in even slight deviation from the album cut, and they were either confused or reluctant to fall into the groove established by the band if the song were extended or modified from the familiar confines of the radio edit.
This came as no big surprise, but I’d figured there would be at least some neo-soul stalwart fans present who were familiar with the idiom and the conventions of a real live R&B show. If they were present, they sure didn’t have a lot of presence, because the crowd was left behind several times during the evening. It’s probably telling that one of the biggest cheers of the night came before the performance, when Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, MTV’s lately unavoidable Newlyweds, rose from the balcony to identify themselves with a regal wave. Even in Manhattan, the neo-soul fan base is small enough that I’d probably have been able to pick out the regulars anyway, but they were definitely not present amongst this overwhelmingly white audience. I had thought JT’s credibility-enhancing work with Timbaland and Pharrell would have helped his cause in the city that invented hip hop, but apparently that’s not (yet) the case.
Working his way through "River", JT inserted a few requisite interjections of "fuck" and "bitch", as if to prove his over-21 realness, but they were unfortunately greeted with squeals that sounded more appropriate for a tattoo-clad "bad boy" member of a boy band. Towards the end of the song, Timbaland came out from back stage and performed his "damage is done" ad-libs live, adding a nice touch. An extended groove and a few choice lines from "You’re So Vain" brought the opener to a great close, and the elegant bed of music topped by Timberlake’s fluid and flawless upper range managed to evoke echoes of Aaliyah when presented over a Timbaland beat. Moving on to a smoother, jazzy groove, JT showed more maturity and elegance than almost any R&B act since Aaliyah died. Then, in an unexpected move, Timberlake actually sat down at the keyboard to start the next song.
What became quickly apparent was that Timberlake was actually leading this band. Giving cues, prompting for solos, extending improvisational riffs when they were succeeding, he may have been aping his influences, but if so, he was aping from the best. A short segment vamping on the main riff to "On Broadway" left Mayer weakly trying to be George Benson alongside some credible, if not particularly astounding, keyboard and vocal work by Timberlake. A nod to the band, and the keyboard part smoothly segued into the intro to "Senorita". Staying largely faithful to the album version of the song, JT was rewarded with some enthusiastic audience participation on the singalong portion of the tune.
Over the next few tracks, the band continued to break the songs down to their elements. Closing "Senorita" on keys, JT moved to an acoustic guitar to begin a jazzy intro that evolved into "Like I Love You". Though clearly not as comfortable on guitar as on keyboards (there were some moments when you could almost feel him concentrating on his chords) it was still impressive to see Timberlake stretch his wings in performance. Early in the show, he had made some noises about the show being taped, and if this excellent performance ever were released as a live DVD, I’ve no doubt that the image of Timberlake and his acoustic guitar would grace the case of the disc. It’s a natural image for an artist trying to transition from pop star to rock star. A heavier guitar part, some effectively intense lighting, and a jazzy middle section taking the place of the original Clipse rap and "Like I Love You" became the second highlight of the night.
The middle section of the show focused more on Justified‘s ballads and midtempo numbers, the weak points of the album. Though Brian McKnight made some decent contributions on the CD, there’s not much that can be done with that sort of McKnight-by-numbers material and they were wisely omitted. If JT intends to transition to full-on credible rock stardom, his sophomore album is going to have to include a more anthemic ballad that he can use to prop up the middle section of the show. In place of such an addition, JT trotted out Pharrell, with whom he actually seemed to have a genuine chemistry, and they woke up the crowd with a run-through of Pharrell’s current hit, "Frontin’". It’s a telling sign if a performer can feature a real live top 10 hit from a guest during a show and still not be upstaged, but Pharrell’s thin falsetto was simply outshined by the crystal-clear, practiced voice that JT had on display, and the incessant pimping of Star Trak only made the N.E.R.D. appellation seem appropriate. The crowd seemed to appreciate the performance, though, once again being seduced by familiarity. Some ad-libbing with Pharrell preceded an energetic run-through of "Last Night", after which the Neptunes front man left the stage with some enthusiastic praise for Timberlake.
The last few songs of the evening kept the energy level high, covering nearly every remaining track on Justified, and the tracklist made the surprising omission of any N’Sync songs, a decision made even more notable given that the group’s best work, on tracks such as "Girlfriend" and "Pop", was co-written by Timberlake himself.
Bringing the evening to its rousing peak, the Black Eyed Peas stormed the stage late in the set. Though they were prone to the usual live hip-hop shout-out cliches, the unequivocal highlight of the entire performance was the arms-waving, exuberant sing-along chorus to their current hit "Where is the Love?" which of course features Timberlake singing the hook. Virtually the entire audience sang along, and though the song is a few simple, obvious chords and some not-particuarly-insightful rhymes, the energy and genuine connection between the now-crowded stage of performers and the audience was undeniable. I caught myself humming the song not just on the way home but the next morning as well, even though I’m not a particular fan of the track. Winding down the Peas’ contribution for the evening, Timberlake put on his most impressive beatboxing display of the evening, offering an accomplished accompaniment to some freestyle rhymes and even acting as backup to a breakdancing display that he praised with a completely unnecessary "genuine b-boy!" description.
The night’s closer was the recent single "Rock Your Body", and Timberlake seemed to have something to prove. The song was truly stripped down to its Jackson-esque core, and built back up into a rousing audience participation piece. Goading the crowd into chanting the "dance with me" hook of the song, Timberlake took up the invitation and put on a genuinely impressive dancing display which only served to draw attention to the relative lack of such flashy showmanship earlier in the evening. More impressively, the dancing and strutting hadn’t been missed, due to the sheer presence of Timberlake and the lock-step tightness of the band. When he closed the show with an apology for the lack of an encore and an explanation that he was genuinely tired, the audience didn’t seem to have any complaints, as the 90-minute performance seemed to have more than satisfied a demanding audience.
And that’s the key thing that stuck with me after the show. Justin Timberlake has a fantastic amount of talent, a credible understanding of his abilities and place in the music industry, the resources to get the best producers and band for helping create his music, and the only thing he lacks is an audience that can appreciate it. Over the last few years, I’ve seen credible neo-soul efforts from white guys like Remy Shand or Thicke, and they made good, even great albums. But Timberlake is light years ahead of them, and has the sense and the industry weight to go to the best people working in contemporary pop today, the Neptunes and Timbaland.
I hadn’t been to a show in a long time where you needed a wristband to go to the bar. And it’s not just that there were underage kids, but that this was an uncritical audience, completely unfamiliar with listening to real bands. The moment when this became most clear to me was the requisite introducing-the-band segment late in the show. There was, of course, a rousing cheer for John Mayer, since the audience had heard of him before. But they actually seemed excited and interested in the unavoidable Spinal Tap-esque drum solo when it came time to feature the percussionist, even though it was the standard everything-but-the-rotating-drum-riser onanistic display. I realized that this was probably due to the fact that most of these kids had never been to a show with a band that actually played instruments instead of playing to tape, and it made all of Timberlake’s efforts seem that much more impressive, but that much more bittersweet.
Justin Timberlake is a fantastic soul/R&B singer already, a great dancer, a strong band leader, a competent keyboard player, and a serviceable guitar player. And he’s an extremely canny music industry player, especially given his age. That he’s playing in the realm of black music shouldn’t be a particular hindrance for his success, given how well he’s managed the question of his street credibility and his industry connections. But he’s saddled with the burden of being perceived as a pre-fab boy band prop, fundamentally inauthentic. Worse, he’s weighted down by an audience that is unfamiliar with the tradition he’s trying to evoke, and most likely unwilling to embrace the new direction at anything but the most superficial levels.
If, as he stated, last week’s performance was being filmed for later use, it was easily enthralling enough to help redefine Timberlake’s image. Perhaps due to race or due to his extraordinary ability, Michael Jackson never faced significant questions about his artistic credibility when going solo, despite having come from a Berry Gordy hit factory that was every bit as controlling and contrived as anything Lou Pearlman ever dreamed up. Timberlake has the twin demons of his boy band background and his teenybopper audience to face down with his sophomore album if he is to have any chance to realize his potential.
So that brings us to the question: What next? Justified is probably good for another single or two, and there are constant rumblings about a new album from N*Sync. But these live shows, away from arenas and overproduction and focused on musicality and actual expression, signal a direction that Timberlake would be foolish to ignore. A follow-up to Justified, perhaps including some of the same producers but with more of the unapologetic rock edge and free-flowing musicianship of his live show would serve to purge some of the more fickle pop fans and would increase Timberlake’s credibility with the neo-soul audience and rock critics. As mentioned above, a significant anthemic ballad would be a key necessity, along with some slight risk-taking (perhaps the duet with Coldplay’s Chris Martin that he keeps making intimations about?) and less schizophrenia about his pop vs. soul leanings could make Justin Timberlake an even more significant and important factor in pop music in coming years.
All of that, some luck, and the kind of showmanship on display last week could make Timberlake into something even more: a serious artist.