LOUISVILLE — If there is one thing people learned about Justin Timberlake this year, it's that the guy is definitely a planner.
Regardless of your feelings toward his often brilliant, occasionally self-indulgent, two-part pop opus The 20/20 Experience, every moment spent away from the music landscape, every online teaser and radio single, every television appearance and performance, was placed just so to ensure Timberlake would build brimming anticipation and leave an indelible imprint in pop culture in 2013.
Taking that into account, it isn't surprising to see how his show Sunday at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville played out. It was a three-hour, two-set barrage that showcased the artist's hit-laden catalog and incredible talent with other elements that left little to chance but none of the sold-out crowd disappointed.
Leading up to Timberlake's first moments on stage, the audience was treated only to a DJ set. His opening act was essentially the build-up to his own arrival, including a brief countdown that led to the entertainer's well-suited silhouette. It was an entrance that would have made Michael Jackson proud. The crowd rained down shrieks and applause at a lengthy, deafening level before Timberlake and his back-up band broke into the retro soul of the 20/20 track Pusher Love Girl.
The remainder of this first set would have been a satisfactory offering for most fans. It sneaked in the new album's deeper cuts and latest singles such as TKO while highlighting some of Timberlake's earliest and most popular hits, including the catchy MJ-indebted tracks Rock Your Body and Like I Love You. High points included My Love, a song that still sounds a few years ahead of its time further transformed live from loungy jazz lament to a more bombastic version of the original's spacey pulse. By the time he ended the set with an arena-rock-size version of his scornful anthem Cry Me a River, most people were happy for a short pause to collect themselves.
This spectacle threw a lot at the audience both visually and sonically. A massive, white honeycomb-patterned screen gave those in the "cheap" seats a glimpse of the star but mainly bombarded fans with a slew of colorful graphics and sequences. A laser show often completely filled the arena like webbing. At one point, the front of the stage elevated — and detached — to float over the floor audience and allow Timberlake to perform more intimately to those in the upper levels during Let the Groove Get In.
This production value aided the second set, which was packed with more of JT's weaker, lesser-known new material. But his large, enthusiastic backing band, known as The Tennessee Kids (Timberlake hails from Memphis), did plenty to give all of the tracks added dimension, heft and snap, contributing a well-placed guitar solo, spot-on vocal melodies, some metallic crunch and horns that were at times jazzy, funky or straight-up Miami Sound Machine.
Even with all of this to see and hear, it never overshadowed the main attraction.
Timberlake has gone from pop upstart to an all-around showman. He was effortlessly dancing and singing with his skilled backup dancers while showcasing his growing musical chops on piano during Until The End of Time, organ on the breezy, Latin-inspired Senorita or acoustic guitar on at least a half-dozen songs in his second set. He also showed a glimpse of the likable charm that has gained him fans away from music, talking to a guy in the front row who was not drinking saying he was "high on JT" and bringing a couple up on stage to aide in a surprise marriage proposal.
Other times, he garnered a few cool points with the crowd by showing influences, doing covers by both Jackson (Human Nature) and Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel), using the funk classic Jungle Boogie as a segue or just having a bit of fun with his band with a spot-on version of Bel Biv Devoe's Poison. When he followed that energetic surprise with Suit and Tie, a ferocious version of SexyBack and his guitar-driven monogamy anthem Mirrors, nearly three hours had passed. There was no encore. The crowd was satisfied.
But audiences were treated to one more song on their way out: A classic Frank Sinatra tune over the PA system with lyrics that began, "And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain." This was no coincidence. It was planned to a T by an artist who doesn't miss a detail. Whether Timberlake was performing his hits, playing covers or paying homage, you couldn't deny that for the entirety of his Louisville performance, he was doing it his way.