It’s Cleveland’s turn to experience Justin Timberlake

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Justin Timberlake performs onstage on The 20/20 Experience World Tour, at Staples Center on November 26 in Los Angeles. (Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP)
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Justin Timberlake is on top of the world.

He is king of the musical castle, and mostly master of his acting domain. Since his 20/20 Experience Tour started, he has had thousands of shrieking fans filling sold-out arenas (including tonight’s sold-out show at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena) reminding him of his awesomeness.

The backlash should start any moment now.

Timberlake, or simply “J.T.” to his fans and friends, has had one heck of a busy 2013. After tending to his acting career for the past several years, the 32-year-old, who has been a professional entertainer for all but the first decade of his life, re-staked his territory as an R&B/pop star through a series of strategic appearances.

He performed a concert with Jay Z before the Super Bowl and spent a full week as the primary guest on his good buddy Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show under the rubric “Timberweek,” which included some very funny sketches (including Fallon and Timberlake in full gray-beard makeup singing Row Row Your Boat in the round with famous gray-beard Michael McDonald).

J.T. also performed for the president at the White House and released the Billboard chart-topping The 20/20 Experience — only his third solo album, and first in seven years. It was quickly followed by a second less well-received part two.

His MTV Video Awards performance generated a ridiculous amount of pre-telecast buzz with all the speculation about an ’N Sync reunion that lasted less than a minute. He became a member of Saturday Night Live’s “Five Timers Club” by hosting the show for the fifth time and even received an Emmy nomination for his trouble. On Dec. 21, he’ll appear on SNL yet again as the musical guest alongside host Jimmy Fallon.

Timberlake also co-starred in the recent film Runner Runner with Ben Affleck. The box office and critical bomb, and the less-enthusiastic response to the 20/20 Experience part two, are arguably Timberlake’s only missteps this year. But even the universally panned film will likely be quickly wiped away with his reportedly funny cameo in the upcoming Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he plays a quirky folk-singer.

But, wait, there’s more.

At the recent American Music Awards, Timberlake took home favorite male pop/rock artist and favorite male R&B/soul artist and The 20/20 Experience won favorite R&B/soul album. Timberlake also received seven Grammy nominations including best pop solo performance for Mirrors, best pop/duo performance for Suit & Tie featuring Jay Z, best pop vocal album and best R&B song for the eight-minute Pusher Love Girl.

Timberlake is in a place in his career where he can pretty much do what he wants and is willing to take chances, evidenced by the two discs of the 20/20 Experience — The Complete Experience.

Many pop artists, after concentrating on other aspects of their careers for several years, would have tried to ensure their comeback album was as hip and happening and as surefire a hit as possible, hiring hot-of-the-moment producers, and filling their tracks with popular guest stars. Instead, Timberlake reteamed with co-producer/co-writer Timbaland, the man who helped solidify Timberlake’s solo street cred with the ballad Cry Me a River on his 2002 debut Justified and the primary co-producer on his 2006 quadruple platinum-selling sophomore disc FutureSex/LoveSounds.

Together again, Timberlake and Timbaland seemingly have indulged all their creative whims, breaking many standard pop album rules. The 20/20 Experience’s place in Timberlake's surprisingly small catalog could wind up as the Timberlake equivalent of Sign of the Times — the stylistically sprawling, creatively indulgent, double album (that’s two vinyl records packaged together, kids) where Prince, a major influence and inspiration for both Timberlake and Timbaland, showed his many musical sides.

On the collected Complete Experience, half of the 21 tracks stretch past the seven-minute mark and orchestrated interludes are dropped into the middle of tunes. There are also several extended instrumental vamps. Let the Groove Get In spends much of its seven minutes as a staccato Latin funk groove before morphing into an updated disco beat for its coda.

While the first part was well-received, many critics (hello, backlash) balked at the less consistently strong second part. Both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with only part one selling platinum so far.

Nevertheless, Timberlake's 20/20 Experience tour has been a smashing success. The show runs nearly three hours and features a sextet of dancers and the 11-piece Tennessee Kids band, which includes four backup singers and a four-piece horn section. The 32-song set covers all three of his solo albums and drops in a few surprising covers including Heartbreak Hotel, Michael Jackson's Human Nature, Kool & the Gang's Jungle Boogie and Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison.

Timberlake has been climbing the fame ladder since he was a tow-headed 10-year-old trying to lose his Memphis accent and he seems to be resting pretty comfortably on the top rung.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.


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