It was the first time he'd performed publicly in Los Angeles in more than five years, so it was natural to view Justin Timberlake's post-Grammys show at the Hollywood Palladium as an Event rather than just another promotional appearance for his upcoming album, The 20/20 Experience. The capacity crowd created a human fortress around the venue, all four adjacent city blocks crammed with fans shoulder-to-shoulder. (You could listen to the entirety of the newly released, eight-minute cut "Mirrors" without moving an inch in the line.) But once inside, what was initially striking was how much of a lowercase event this actually was, despite how a pair of tickets could fetch over $500 on Craigslist. Most people were far from being on their suit and tie shit, and those that were seemed to be CAA assistants guaranteed to be worthless the next morning. The rest were amongst the throngs of JT fans who just so happened to fork over $118 via Ticketmaster in the six or so minutes tickets were available.
The show highlighted Justin Timberlake: The Musician more so than Justin Timberlake: The Performer. At least two songs did away with even the most perfunctory dance moves as JT was instead anchored by either an acoustic guitar or a piano. Likewise, his band replicated the old hits, offering only a scant bit of new material, despite the opening DJ's incessant 20/20 shout outs. Nearly a dozen musicians appeared on stage-- at least six vocalists, three percussionists, two guitarists-- in the service of recreating the state-of-the-art Neptunes and Timbaland production of "Like I Love You", "My Love", and "Rock Your Body" almost verbatim, right down to the piped-in beatboxing sounds.
A cover of INXS' "Need You Tonight" was spirited but conveying actual sex appeal doesn't come naturally to him; comparing Michael Hutchence's libidinous vocals to Timberlake's recalled how the lowest moments of FutureSex/LoveSounds highlighted the awkward chasm between the singer's tentative dirty talk and his still thin voice. Visually and sonically, the tuxed-up look is a canny move for Timberlake-- he's aspiring for a more "grown" sound (the simplistic lyrics of "Suit and Tie" notwithstanding). But how it'll play on the 20/20 Experience is still unclear. New tracks "Pusher Love Girl" and "That Girl" didn't sound overtly retro, but a lot of their gestures-- big horn charts, stop-on-a-dime dynamics-- did suggest a fussy, Motown-strict composition process.
At the Grammys, he found himself amongst competition that have made weirder, sexier, and arguably more accomplished R&B in his absence-- The-Dream, Frank Ocean, and Miguel, to name a few. So while it was endearing to see him performing with urgency and uncertainty, providing a good stress test for The 20/20 Experience, in light of who's filled the void since FutureSex, whether he's still the biggest and the best remains uncertain.