Time flies when you’re having fun. That certainly explains Justin Timberlake’s professed surprise at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, when the singer suddenly realized he hadn’t played the venue since 2000. That’s a whole ‘nother time and place when it comes to pop music, especially when you consider Timberlake’s last stand at MSG was when ‘N Sync was still near the peak of its powers, albeit primed for a fall.
But Timberlake’s come a long way since then, so long that he’s got nothing left to prove. If “Justified” establish him as a solo juggernaut, “FutureSex/LoveSounds” solidified his mega status. At this point in his career — with millions of records sold, a string of gorgeous girlfriends, even the modest ability to poke fun at himself — Timberlake doesn’t need to do a damn thing to please anyone beside himself. He’s in the increasingly rare position of having both the people and the critics on his side, and the enviable freedom to do whatever he wants.
The prevailing mood at Madison Square Garden was therefore not unlike a party in progress, with Timberlake playing the host. Beat for beat, JT’s show was choreographed as carefully as any arena show, but Timberlake was clearly after something that felt a bit more casual and spontaneous. Sometimes he raced around the stage, hitting every jetty of the “in the round” set-up. Often he just sat at an electric piano, ostensibly leading the crack band (minus the horns that adorned his first tour) while countless dancers and back-up singers pranced around him.
Once in a while he picked up and strummed an acoustic guitar, as he did for the crowd pleasing “Like I Love You” and once, he donned a gaudy keytar, for the Jam-and-Lewis indebted “Sexy Ladies.” At nearly all times Timberlake and the stage were cloaked with a large scrim that also served as a projector screen, so that his legions of screaming fans (still mostly female) could get a better, closer look.
The massive “My Love” was delivered early in the set, while Timberlake played more traditional balladeer with “What Goes Around,” and “Chop Me Up” queued up collaborator Timbaland, looking every bit as snazzy as JT in his own sharp suit. Alas, Timbaland may be a genius, but he lacks Timberlake’s gift for showmanship. When he took the stage solo for an extended DJ set, most of the energy Timberlake had built up dissipated as the producer’s indulgent back-patting dragged on.
After the interminable break, “Rock Your Body” brought the sold-out crowd right back into Timberlake’s corner, but the show never quite matched its early highs again until its concluding rush of “Cry Me a River,” the epic “Lovestoned/I Think She Knows” and the inevitable “SexyBack.” Perhaps not as inevitable was the appearance of “Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg for a performance of the just-release-it-as-a-single “Dick in a Box,” which was hilarious if wholly unnecessary.
Like the vibe most of the evening, one gets the impression Timberlake wanted to bust out the parody not as a gift to the thousands gathered but just to amuse himself. He could barely stifle his laughter as he delivered the deadpan lines, like he was giddy at the chance to deviate from the script. If other times throughout the night Timberlake coasted when he should have soared, it’s easy to understand why. After all, the hard work’s already been done.
Timberlake’s a star. Sexy’s back, safe and sound (and endorsed quite capably by scantily clad opening act Pink). Now someone get the guy a real challenge and put him to work.
Here is Justin Timberlake’s set list:
“Like I Love You”
“Until the End of Time”
“What Goes Around”
“Chop Me Up”
“Rock Your Body”
“Still on My Brain”
“Take It From Here”
“Losing My Way”
“Cry Me a River”
“Lovestoned/I Think She Knows”
“Dick in a Box”
“(Another Song) All Over Again”