Measured by the celebrities in attendance at this crazy exclusive club date, Justin Timberlake is one of pop’s brightest lights — Ellen DeGeneres, the Hilton sisters, Tyra Banks and Pharrell Williams were some of the fan favorites eliciting shrieks from below whenever they peered over the VIP balcony. But once the former ’N Sync-er took the stage, it became obvious why everyone was there.
Lifting off with a bombastic version of his revenge fantasy “Cry Me a River” (take that, Britney!), Timberlake then led his tight all-black band through an exuberant take on the rollicking juke-joint number “Señorita,” with the capacity crowd singing louder than Timberlake himself. But the new songs were the true test, and for the most part they passed. “My Love” (which got a five-star review from Pitchfork’s terminal hipsters) is another top-flight Timbaland collaboration, riding an easy Southern hip-hop groove and falsetto melody. Will.I.Am showed up to guest on his collabo “Damn Girl,” an upbeat pop romp screaming for radio play. The lilting ballad “Until the End of Time” showcased Timberlake’s knack for sticky melodies and sugary sentiment. “Like I Love You” became a live mashup, slipping the riff to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” underneath the chorus. The party ramped up when Timbaland and the Three 6 Mafia busted onstage; even the band seemed bemused by Timberlake’s delight at performing alongside such hip-hop heavyweights. And the rousing closer, the ambitiously bizarre new single “SexyBack,” drew the loudest ovation of the night from the partisan crowd. If Timberlake’s upcoming FutureSex/LoveSounds shows this kind of breadth and bump, it could be the hottest pop album since, well, Justified.
Timberlake has carved an enviable niche in the pop-cultural landscape, with a pansexual identity that excites both gay boys and the decidedly female TRL massive. Musically, he enjoys a credibility that’s as much about his own undeniable talents as about the company he keeps. It’s like Prince and Madonna really did have a baby in the ’80s.
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