Back in 2007, satirical newspaper the Onion seemed to speak on behalf of the nation’s music critics when it penned the headline “Justin Timberlake Apathetically Crowned King of Pop,” as the singer’s coronation seemed equally premature and inevitable. But it’s funny what an abrupt half-decade hiatus from music will do. Returning to concert stages via a packed-to-the-gills post-Grammy set at the Hollywood Palladium, the once and future pop potentate delivered a veritable dissertation in spit-shined showmanship. But whether he has the commitment (and the new tunes) to mount a lasting comeback is still an open question.
Given the benefit of hindsight, Timberlake’s early doubters have to concede some errors in judgment. While his first album, “Justified,” was a solid and mostly successful attempt to sever connections with his teen pop past, its 2006 successor, the Timbaland-produced “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” was something else entirely. A massive success upon release, the forward-looking electro-R&B record has only grown in stature since, with wannabe successors like Miguel and Bruno Mars tearing huge chunks out of its playbook. Whether new record “The 20/20 Experience,” due in March, can equal that mark is the truly sticky wicket here, but it is no small compliment to note that the old material sounded rather stunning during Timberlake’s 90-minute, 16-song set.
Backed by a 15-piece band dubbed the Tennessee Kids, which included a small horn section and four backing singers, J.T. & Co. brought an epic and bombastic heft to the opening three numbers. The impressive rhythm section managed to keep curtain-raiser “Like I Love You” recessed deep into the pocket even while playing at a faster-than-normal tempo; the blocky robotic riffage of “My Love” was ably navigated; and “Cry Me a River” — a song that bears more boy-band baggage than Timberlake’s other solo work — gradually worked itself into a deafening frenzy that almost approached thrash metal.
As for Timberlake, the frontman displayed all the natural confidence and savvy of a man steeped in showbusiness from a young age, remaining in constant yet even-keeled motion. Looking absurdly dapper in a suit with his bow-tie haughtily undone, the 32-year-old Memphis native parceled out his limber-legged dance moves and quivering high-register flourishes into smartly-rationed portions, keeping the crowd at a steady froth without ever overheating.
That said, while he never seemed unengaged, there was nonetheless an ineluctable tinge of remove to the proceedings. Chalk it up to nerves, perhaps, but the performer’s high-wattage charisma seemed slightly refracted, and he hardly spoke to the crowd save for an odd comment toward the end of the show, where he pledged: “I love each and every one of you, and don’t let the fucking media tell you otherwise,” referencing some slight of which only he seems to be aware.
As for the new material, the set did little to clarify the singer’s future intentions. Timberlake only played three new songs, of which only the insubstantially pleasant hit “Suit & Tie” managed to really register. (A cameo appearance from Jay-Z certainly didn’t hurt in that regard.) “Pusher Lover Girl” was a breezy little ditty with a structure reminiscent of U2’s “The Sweetest Thing” and an almost Beck-like employment of falsetto, yet it never seemed to arrive anywhere in particular, and “That Girl” proved as anonymous as its titular subject.
But it was clear this show was less about testing new material than reestablishing Timberlake’s golden god credentials, and some truly show-stopping numbers fit that bill nicely. The star’s four backing singers came center stage to show off some hot disco moves to the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body,” and show-closer “SexyBack” brought Timbaland out for a supremely endearing synchronized dance.
Yet the real climax came mid-set, with an intense three-song stanza that moved effortlessly from a particularly grinding “FutureSex/LoveSound” into an ace cover of INXS’ similarly syncopated “Need You Tonight,” then ended strong with “LoveStoned/I Think That She Knows,” its extended psychedelic coda providing a lovely bit of blissed-out respite from the hard funk that came before.
The world was there for Timberlake’s taking back in the mid-2000s, and the intervening years have yet to produce a male pop star who can equal his all-inclusive propulsion when he hits full steam. But he’ll have to go all in this time, as the ever-fickle winds of mainstream stardom will only tolerate half-measures for so long.