Ancient concert-going etiquette dictates that you should never attend a musician’s show wearing that musician’s gear. If there’s one person who can get away with this, it’s Justin Timberlake, who spent a good part of his Saturday night in South Philly rocking a denim jacket embroidered with his own logo.
The sparse symbol, an etching that wouldn’t look out of place burnt into the cover of an evil book in a horror movie, contains the letters MOTW — Man of the Woods, the pop mainstay’s most recent album. Timberlake would later change into a MOTW T-shirt you actually can buy off his website for $45 (the phrase is trademarked, of course).
Over a long career, the 37-year-old has excelled as an artist, but also as a marketeer — hawking his merch, sure, but also his sound, a streamlined shopping cart of influences that rarely suffers a wobbly wheel. It seemed to sell very well in Philadelphia, devoured by a keyed-up Wells Fargo Center light years louder than the last time I was there: May 7, for Game 4 of the Sixers-Celtics series.
The Man of the Woods tour, here for the final date of a 36-show opening leg before storming Europe, is heavy on the new stuff, in both set list and stagecraft. Timberlake opened with recent single “Filthy,” his live band the Tennessee Kids leading with tension-building guitar licks that melted into an electro-funk throb built by frequent collaborator Timbaland.
Working both the main stage and a tree-lined walkway that snaked out like a wonky question mark, Timberlake strutted the expanse in a pair of extremely expensive-looking LeBrons, offering a few more new songs before dropping his first big hammer: “SexyBack,” which whipped the sizeable with-you-since-*NSYNC audience into hysterics.
The 2006 FutureSex/LoveSounds smash represented, back then, a major shift for the singer, from the crisp, high-gloss R&B of Justified to a more genre-bending sound. A dozen years later, Timberlake is attempting to make another move, this time back to Rocky Top. The Tennessean infused a significant country edge into Man of the Woods, through both the songwriting and instrumentation.
It’s been successful on the radio, but the jury is still out on whether it’s been truly embraced by his core ticket buyers. His performance of the new album’s title track, especially following “SexyBack,” seemed to deflate the mood. Then he hopped behind a piano, banged out of the first few notes of “Senorita,” and puffed it right back up. This set off a firecracker string of hits, starting with ”Suit & Tie,” which saw the nimble, committed Timberlake jive solo with a Day-Glo microphone stand rigged to lean and rock with him, a fantastic sort of high-budget shout-out to the broom scene from Breakin’.
Borrowing one of Kanye West’s most effective live signatures,Timberlake later gathered himself in front of an MPC drum machine, hit with two spotlights as he addressed the crowd. “This is off the dome! We in Philly, so I’m taking it back,” he announced. Beanie Sigel? Teddy Pendergrass? Hall & Oates? Not quite: He tapped a button and triggered an a capella of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme, chopping Will Smith’s sing-songy bars into the cascading synths that open “My Love.” They loved it.
After a tremendous, seat-shaking arena-rock rendition of “Cry Me a River,” which saw the translucent projection banners billowing from ceiling cascade with fat drops of CGI rain, Timberlake slowed down the pace considerably, pouring out shots for his musicians (“We got a saying where I come from. Friends don’t let friends drink alone”) while acknowledging them, especially the prolific percussionist Brian Frasier-Moore, a Philly native.
Later, an acoustic-armed Timberlake perched with his crew around a mock campfire on the opposite end of the floor, paying more deference to his “not-so-backup singers” by hyping up a series of brief but impressive solo snippets from his vocalists, who covered Fleetwood Mac, Lauryn Hill, the Beatles and John Denver. The tonal shift also allowed Timberlake to slide into other new singles, including the folksy, solemn “Flannel” and “Say Something.”
The latter hit — inspired by his experience with a Philadelphia magazine journalist — is one song I find weirdly emblematic of what is still Timberlake’s most questionable move to date: idling by after his controversial 2004 Super Bowl halftime show with Janet Jackson, sidestepping criticism of his role in the stunt while his fellow superstar was essentially blacklisted from the music industry. (Timberlake was even invited back to sing again at Super Bowl LII, which you might have watched.)
What sounds like a neo-woke anthem in passing is actually an extremely well-produced sonic version of a shrug if you really listen to the lyrics. Sometimes the greatest the way to say something is to say nothing at all, goes the refrain from the duet, written and recorded with crossover country star Chris Stapleton. I don’t wanna get caught up in the rhythm of it. We know you don’t, Justin — that’s how you’ve maintained this buoyant run, while Janet is just starting to make her way back.
In fairness, a mishandled PR nightmare from 14 years ago should not come to define Timberlake, or any artist, but it should be noted as a career calculation that allows a song like “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” to exist. His number one hit from the Trolls soundtrack, which he rolled out at the very end of his Philly show to a rapturous response, is an all-ages, mom-friendly wedding jam that offends no one. Nice work if you can get it. Timberlake, a deeply gifted performer who reads the room better than anyone, got it, and he ain’t letting go.