It is hard to break out of the boy band ghetto. For every rare Justin Timberlake there are scores more former teen idols who have disappeared into anonymity, such as Timberlake’s former colleagues in N Sync. All that grooming, all those hours spent mastering complicated dance routines. It is a cruel lesson in pop’s fickle patronage.
Timberlake is the one who got away, and he is clearly anxious to lay to rest his N Sync past. Sappy boy band romance, the musical equivalent of holding hands, has given way to raunch. “Daddy’s on a mission to please,” he piped within moments of stepping on stage. A deafening crescendo of female screaming wiped the smirk from my face.
The boyish 26-year-old may look ill-suited to the role of pop-R&B Casanova but he carries it off with style. His dancing was fluid, his falsetto was engaging, and the music – much of it recorded with hip-hop futurists The Neptunes and Timbaland – was at times excellent. He sets his sights high. Michael Jackson’s influence was telegraphed with high-pitched yelps and moonwalking dance moves. Prince was another touchstone: Timberlake does an uncannily accurate vocal impression of the Minneapolis maestro, whose lascivious stage persona has clearly also rubbed off on him.
Highlights included “What Goes Around”, a cleverly spiralling pop ballad, and the southern rap-referencing “Chop Me Up”, both from his absurdly titled recent album FutureSex/LoveSounds. Its producer Timbaland appeared wearing a vast fur coat during “Chop Me Up” to perform a guest rap. He may be a wizard in the studio but the novelty of seeing him in the flesh swiftly palled when Timberlake exited the stage for a break, leaving him to bore us with a self-agrandising DJ set.
That was not the only dull moment. The choppy R&B of the singer’s first solo album Justified failed to translate well to the stage, and Timberlake did not have the vocal range to carry the slower numbers, several of which found him ostentatiously playing piano as if to flag up his musical pedigree. There was no need, however. As he showed when his set gelled, Timberlake is a gifted performer with a handful of fine songs. It takes talent to escape the boy band graveyard.
Justin Timberlake plays the O2 Arena, London, on Monday
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