Smooth operator: Timberlake onstage with a dancer at Motorpoint Arena. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Justin Timberlake, the 20/20 Experience Tour

“This is too good. Will the pleasure never end?” asks Kate Mossman as she witnesses the endothermic showman Justin Timberlake in concert in Sheffield.

Justin Timberlake
Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield

There’s an idea – peculiarly British – that flawless musicianship sometimes comes at the expense of soul. I think it’s something put about by non-musicians trying to deal with the sick feeling of seeing someone brilliant onstage. Watching a great musician is like watching a wire-walker. You’re jittery, elated, adrenalised – but what can you do about it, standing in the crowd like Soft Mick? I felt this way when I saw Dweezil Zappa at the Barbican in 2011, duetting with a giant, pixelated version of his dad: this is too good. Will the pleasure never end? And I felt it so much at Justin Timberlake’s gig in Sheffield on 30 March that I had to leave before the last song and retire to bed to watch YouTube clips of the tour instead, better able to contend with my excitement on a 12-inch screen.

Timberlake and his 11-piece band the Tennessee Kids are rammed in a tiny space at the front of the stage for the drinking song “Drink You Away”. One of the backing singers is on the floor, a leg folded under her; one of the horn players looks like John Shuttleworth; every musician is singing. This moment of carefully choreographed chaos, an unusual use of a vast, clean space, is one of several simple but innovative production tricks tonight. Another is the interval (every big show should have an interval); another is the moving Perspex runway hanging across the crowd, raking the entire arena front to back so everyone, at some point, gets a close-up look at Timberlake’s face.

Gigs of this size often feel like a one-way deal: pop royalty puts on wonderful pageant for the scrofulous masses, exits exhausted, does it all again the following night. But I can testify, from my position under the plastic rung, that Timberlake appears to be one of those rare endothermic showmen whose energy is continually topped up by little collisions with the crowd. His eyes dart from face to face and he bites his bottom lip like he’s trying not to laugh. It’s probably just the way he’s wired – he’s got ADHD – but he’s one of the only musicians I’ve seen who appears to be more lively at the end of the show than at the start, like some kind of strange Duracell bunny in spats.

Born in Memphis, he was a child star on the Disney show The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside a pubescent Britney, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. After a stint with the boy band ’N Sync, he reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with a slick 1970s soul-funk sound, just before everyone else started doing that kind of thing. He went into movies and established himself as someone with a brain through various satirical TV skits, including one in which he played Elton John singing a version of “Candle in the Wind” for Hugo Chávez (Saturday Night Live). Last year’s album The 20/20 Experience impressed the kind of people who call themselves “serious music fans” with its intricate, eight-minute, Quincy Jones-style soul-pop songs. When our distant forebears look back on popular music, they will not be able to distinguish between the best of his output – such as “Rock Your Body” – and a tune by Michael Jackson. His voice is a bit bleaty at times but that goes with the territory.

The Tennessee Kids rise from below the stage – congas first, shiny as a fire engine, then horns, each player sprouting up behind a little grey lectern, like tombstones in a cartoon haunted house. The string players backstage appear as huge shadows, reminding me of the scary brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

The 20/20 Experience seems an appropriate name for a show that synthesises vast swaths of 20th-century pop culture, from speakeasies to James Bond, Prince to Stevie Wonder, and its recent incarnations in Janelle Monáe and Outkast. There are moments of musical trickery, such as when he folds the last chorus of Jackson’s “Human Nature” into his own song and passes it through a minor key. As he strolls at one end of the arena, John Shuttleworth and friends play Miles Davis’s “So What” casually at the other, as if it were an afterthought.

The crowd seems to be coping well with the high quality of the show: 20,000 people join Timberlake in a rapid-fire falsetto line about drivin’ in the car with the top down. He has won polls for being sexy, though I can’t see it myself – former child stars often remain curiously asexual, especially the males, so high of voice and smooth of skin. He is a pro golfer with a fashion line in what Alan Partridge might call “sports casual” and has endorsement deals with Walmart and Audi. But his recent film roles have played up the idea of unselfconscious dweebery to great effect – the polo-necked folkie in Inside Llewyn Davis, or his part in Bad Teacher, in which he dry-humps Cameron Diaz with a roar and a wet patch on his trousers. His charisma is physical. He does the dance routines, joining his chorus line for that sliding, moonwalky stuff – then breaks into freestyle, helicoptering round like Fred Astaire in Converse trainers.

By the time we get to the Afrobeat song “Let the Groove Get In” (yes, Timberlake also does an Afrobeat song), Motorpoint Arena has turned into a sprawling dance party with every audience member facing a different direction, grooving, wearing a trilby and holding a trombone (OK, not quite).

Where do we go from here, I ask myself, scanning for the exit in panic. Is this not the “whole of music” in one evening? What’s the point in anyone doing another gig, ever? Will the pleasure never end? I glance at my set list and see that Timberlake ends with “Mirrors”, which, I recall, is a particularly good song. Time to get out. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution