On Monday night, at about half past 8, something big went down at Verizon Center. Justin Timberlake was there, singing Justin Timberlake’s songs and dancing Justin Timberlake’s moves on a state-of-the-art soundstage. The arena was packed with Justin Timberlake fans.
But it would be difficult to call Monday night’s event a Justin Timberlake concert — at least until about 10:45.
Last year, when Timberlake released the two installments of “The 20/20 Experience” in March and September, many critics praised the albums’ ornate production and sophisticated sound. The first installment became 2013’s top-selling album. But among the chief complaints — both times around — was that the songs, many of which cruise right past the six-, seven- and even eight-minute marks, try to use length and ornamentation to make up for what they lack in impact.
The same could probably be said about most of Timberlake’s tour of the same title. For the first two hours of the 21 / 2-hour show, fans were treated to the reliable sonic wonder of Timberlake’s voice and a feast of gorgeous visuals, such as Timberlake’s gleaming white dinner jacket under a stark spotlight and a stories-high animation of well-polished engine parts, chomping ever so slowly toward propulsion.
But there wasn’t much of what they’ve come to love about the man himself.
For the vast majority of Monday’s show, the wily charm Timberlake has wielded so deftly on “Saturday Night Live” and in frequent collaborations with his pal Jimmy Fallon was conspicuously absent. His banter with the crowd consisted of bland platitudes like “Wassup, D.C.?” and “Can we get this party going?” Songs such as “TKO,” “Summer Love” and “Lovestoned” drifted joylessly into one another, and it was difficult to imagine that this Timberlake, the one ever-so-seriously laboring through every Michael Jackson-style slide-step, was the same Timberlake who spent three hilariously deadpan minutes on “SNL” crooning about giving his beloved a gift-wrapped box with a strategically placed hole in it for Christmas. (Maybe it’s worth noting, however, that he did reschedule two performances late last week in New York because of illness.)
There were inspired glimmers here and there: With rock-tinged songs such as “Drink You Away” and his cover of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” Timberlake showcased some of the tangy, twangy capabilities he hinted at this year in the Coen brothers’ folk odyssey “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The horn section of his backing band, the Tennessee Kids, helped bring his vintage raw sex appeal roaring back to life with 2002’s sizzling, understated “Señorita.”
But then it disappeared again. The newly married Timberlake kept a safe, thoroughly awkward distance from a dancer shimmying in lingerie during the getting-it-on anthem “Cabaret,” and it wasn’t until “Murder,” the evening’s fourth-to-last song, that the simultaneously impish, raunchy and mesmerizing Justin Timberlake fans know emerged — crisp, fancy footwork, lusty pantomimed spankings and all.
“Do you want it, baby?” he simpered at the audience. “Say please.” A critical mass apparently said the magic word, and Timberlake launched into an electrifying rendition of his 2006 megahit “SexyBack.” The crowd reached its highest decibel count of the night when Timberlake, mid-chorus, announced with a half-smirk, “I still run this, b----.”
He fell to his knees at the end of “Mirrors,” flashed an exhausted grin at his fans and playfully bowed down to worship them. For the final 20 minutes or so, at least, he had delivered the Justin Timberlake concert people had come to see. So maybe the imagery at the start of the show was a signal: His 20/20 Experience World Tour is a piece of polished, powerful machinery, but it takes awhile to fully combust.
Fetters is a freelance writer.