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Timberlake, Stripping Down (The Spectacle)

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Justin Timberlake is all growed up now -- and how, based on his show Friday at the 9:30 club.

Once, of course, he was the fresh-faced, squeaky-clean boy-band doofus who dazzled millions of glow-stick-waving little girls who thought him to be the -- ohmigod ! -- dreamiest denim-suit-wearing former Mouseketeer ev- er. (Whereas most reasonably minded adults simply tried not to think about the prefab pop puppet at all, lest they have bad Davy Jones flashbacks.)

But this is Timberlake now, at 25: A scruffy-faced, foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, pelvis-thrusting blue-eyed soul man who sings sexualized, sophisticated pop songs, wears sleek retro suits with skinny ties and is, at the moment, touring smallish rock clubs where he's generally blowing away more mature audiences who more or less consider him to be the epitome of contemporary-pop cool. Which he totally is -- in my expert, adult opinion.

Timberlake is building buzz for the Sept. 12 release of his second solo album, "FutureSex/LoveSounds." But he's also stating his case to be taken seriously as an artist. If Exhibit A was his unexpectedly superlative post-'N Sync debut, 2002's "Justified," then the latest piece of evidence is this tour, on which Timberlake is eschewing pop spectacle for a plain old show.

No big dance sequences during the 90-minute set, though Timberlake did glide, pop, strut and high-step for a few bars here and there. No mechanical stage parts or pyros or other special effects aside from a well-considered light. And no wardrobe changes, either, even if the star did ditch his dark suit jacket after three songs -- and eventually untucked and unbuttoned the shirt.

The stripping came just before Timberlake performed the thumping "Rock Your Body," during which the predominantly female audience repeatedly shouted the lyric that immediately preceded Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction: "Better have you naked by the end of this song." Timberlake never did oblige. At least not in the sartorial sense.

Putting his music and neck-hair-raising falsetto front and center, he did strip away the pop veneer and sang without the aid of prerecorded backing vocals. He also played a little bit of Fender Rhodes keyboard and acoustic guitar, and he even made like an actual bandleader, gesticulating in the manner of Prince and James Brown to cue and otherwise communicate with his tight, dexterous 11-piece backing group.

There was much to discuss, from stop-on-a-dime dynamics -- as featured in a sultry reading of "Justified's" Spanish-inflected hit, "Senorita" -- to frequent shifts in keys, tempos and even musical styles: During an encore performance of "SexyBack," for which Timberlake was joined onstage by the new single's mad-professor producer Timbaland, the band suddenly changed directions, recasting the buzzing, electro-R&B song as an exuberant, D.C.-style go-go jam. (In both live iterations, "SexyBack" trumped the digitized-sounding recorded version, as Timberlake's unprocessed vocal was superior and seemed more inspired.) Sometimes, the songs themselves changed completely. For instance, the syncopated dance-pop of Timberlake's "Like I Love You" abruptly gave way to the metallic crunch of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Whether Timberlake was trying to make a statement by interpolating the latter song is unclear. But following the unexpected mash-up, as he sat down to play a new Prince-like slow jam, "Until the End of Time," he exhaled and noted that he's getting "too old for this."

And, it seems, for some of his fans, as the smoldering show was open only to those 18 and over. Something about not wanting to offend the yutes with his salty language and dirty dancing. Not that the age restriction thinned the crowd any, as all 1,200 tickets sold out in about eight minutes.

The show opened with an amusing instrumental rock-opera rendition of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," which morphed into a punched-up version of "Cry Me a River," Timberlake's infamous kiss-off of his ex, Britney Spears. Suggesting that he has more than just early Michael Jackson records in his collection -- though he's definitely studied plenty of those -- Timberlake quoted Carly Simon during the opener, sneering: "I bet you think this song is about you." (Well, yeah, sure she does, given "Cry Me a River's" lyrics and the fact that a Britney doppelganger appears in the video.)

Likewise, Spears is certain to figure that the new "What Goes Around" is about her. The song should probably be subtitled "Cry Me Another River," as it echoes the earlier Timberlake hit both musically and thematically, what with Timberlake singing: "I was ready to give you my name." (Nice trade-down by Britney, by the way: Instead of sticking with the potential future king of pop, she's married Kevin Federline, who is, at best, the new Vanilla Ice. Don't cry for Timberlake: He's with Cameron Diaz, though she didn't appear to be with him Friday.)

Of the new material unveiled by Timberlake, the standout was "My Love," a sweet love song with simple lyrics and complex, polyrhythmic music. The studio version features a romantic rap cameo by T.I., who isn't necessarily known for writing tender lyrics; in T.I.'s absence at the 9:30, Timberlake -- who isn't known for rapping, period -- capably handled the verse himself. He also beat-boxed at several points during the show, well enough that he never threatened to embarrass himself.

More importantly, he successfully argued his case that he's matured and developed as an artist and as a performer to the point that it's no longer necessary to consider him a guilty pleasure. He's beyond that, and so are we. Ten million Justin Timberlake fans can't be wrong, no matter how old they are.

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