Just over seven months ago, Justin Timberlake returned to the event — if not the actual scene — of the crime.
As the featured halftime performer at Super Bowl LII, the singer roared through 11 songs (well, parts of them, anyway) during a scant 13 minutes for a show the New York Times dubbed “heavy on dance spectacle, light on vocal authority.”
It was a comprehensive career display, nonetheless, with ample offerings from the his first two career-defining albums (2002’s “Justified” and 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds”), previews from his about-to-be-released “Man of the Woods” and an effectively respectful cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” complete with an image of the hometown icon draped down the middle of Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium.
All ears and quite a few eyes, however, locked on the set’s second song, “Rock Your Body” – a dance-pop serenade Timberlake took to the clubs and charts in 2002. It was the same tune he sang in 2004 at Super Bowl XXXVIII with Janet Jackson. That was the infamous performance that introduced a new fashion term to the world: wardrobe malfunction.
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But the Timberlake of 2018 was a different, albeit safer, artist. It wasn’t that he was especially outrageous 14 years earlier, outside of the fact that Jackson took far more critical flack over the incident than he did. But having turned 37 less than a week before this second Super Bowl outing, Timberlake delivered a performance that was seemed purposely innocuous, relying heavily on physicality, vibrancy and an amiable artist appeal built around a cross-generational understanding of pop tradition.
A friend mentioned a few days after the telecast that Timberlake was “officially safe for TV audiences again.” In truth, though, it has been through television that he established his truest and, frankly, most intriguing artistic profile.
Sure, Timberlake introduced himself on concert stages two decades ago as a member of the storied boy band ‘N Sync, whose six-year lifespan included a June 2000 concert at Rupp Arena. So, yes, Timberlake is returning to another scene of another crime when he makes his debut as a Rupp headliner on Wednesday.
But despite the obvious commercial machinations of a calculated act like ‘N Sync, Timberlake, on his own, long ago established himself as an artist of often surprising versatility.
Take his numerous appearances on “Saturday Night Live” that showcased a natural comic ability. There was his loss-for-words portrayal of Bee Gee bro Robin Gibb, his outrageously tacky dance-pop videos with Adam Samberg (“Motherlover” forever stretched the boundaries of taboo and taste for late night TV) or the rapping Christmas package from “Wrappinville.” Pop stars have long tried to slide into comedic TV since the days of The Beatles, but few have made the leap with such completeness and ease as Timberlake.
That comedic flair carried over onto the big screen when Timberlake took a turn as a sweater-savvy, early ‘60s folk singer in the 2013 Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” His pokerfaced performance alongside Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac for the oddball outer space parable “Please Mr. Kennedy” was a true scene stealer.
But for anyone who thought Timberlake couldn’t cut the mustard as a vintage Greenwich Village balladeer, check out his T Bone Burnett-produced duet with Carey Mulligan of the champion folk weeper “500 Miles.”
In retrospect, such a performance surprised largely because Timberlake, for all of his work and exposure off concert stages, was still viewed largely as a dance-soul star by the pop mainstream — a trait his often infrequent recording schedule did little to discount.
But Timberlake’s biggest trick was still to come.
In late 2015, he appeared on the televised Country Music Association Awards not as the kind of pop-to-country crossover act to which Nashville has long been suspect. Country-to-pop is now a regular path for most Music City artists. The reverse route usually takes singers down dead end career alleys.
Here, however, Timberlake was playing duet partner for two songs (“Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away”) to Chris Stapleton, the Lexington-born traditionalist with a serious soul music streak who was still gaining traction at the time with country radio.
Within days of the CMA telecast, Stapleton’s career blew up. His six month-old debut album “Traveller” bolted to No. 1 on the all genre Billboard 200 chart as internet searches for his music shot to the moon along with his record sales. Just a few months later, Stapleton’s status as a Grammy winning country sensation would be cemented.
Timberlake continued the alliance by welcoming Stapleton to his pop-soul turf for “Say Something,” the most honestly potent tune from “Man of the Woods.” In somewhat fitting fashion, Stapleton will headline his own Rupp show next month.
“I’ve been having this conversation with my friends who are all about the same age and I’m saying, ‘You know, life doesn’t happen in black and white,’” Timberlake told The New York Times in 2013. “The gray area is where you become an adult… the medium temperature, the gray area, the place between black and white. That’s the place where life happens.”
From comedy to country, from pop-soul to Stapleton, meet Justin Timberlake — the Golden Boy of the Grey Area.
If you go:
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19
Where: Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine
Call: 859-233-3535, 800-745-3000