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Crítica “FutureSex/LoveShow”: Madison Square Garden

At the Garden, a New, Racy Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake performed at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

After a few songs at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, Justin Timberlake needed a break. Like a man who’d just spent a hard day hip-thrusting at the office, he shrugged off his white suit jacket. Loosened his tie. Rolled up his sleeves. Then he kicked back with a relaxing cocktail. He hadn’t played the Garden since 2000, with ‘N Sync, and certainly that deserved a toast.

As the tequila went down, his face screwed up into a grimace. “I felt like such a man before I took that shot”, he said. “Kids, don’t try that at home”.

The Old Justin, an earnest, cred-deprived crooner with a boy-band past, is still coming to terms with the New Justin, a racy pop superstar who can mock Prince and get away with it. Last year, his addictively catchy album, “FutureSex/ LoveSounds” sold about 2.5 million copies and was showered with critical acclaim . He had two monster hits, the R&B ballad “My Love” and the buzzing dance track “SexyBack”, which is responsible for one of 2006’s biggest catchphrases: “I’m bringing sexy back”.

In December, he even won the respect of teenage dudes, thanks to a naughty R&B spoof with Andy Samberg on “Saturday Night Live”. Given that it involves gift-boxes and the male anatomy, its title is unprintable. Given that it involves gift-boxes and the male anatomy, it is a massive hit on YouTube (13.6 million views and counting).

But 2007 is already even better for Mr. Timberlake. He enjoyed good reviews for “Alpha Dog”, which appears to be a movie about his bare torso. He is up for four Grammys next week, including the coveted “Album of the Year” prize. And since his reported split from Cameron Diaz, he is Hollywood’s new A-list bachelor prize. If recent celebrity rag covers are to be believed, buxom thespians are clawing each other for his affections. Even Donald Trump paid his respects at the sold-out Garden, offering a presidential wave for the camera phones.

With his slight frame and baby-face, Mr. Timberlake is not an obvious candidate for pin-up status. Essentially a well-mannered southern-boy-next-door, he doesn’t embody much mystery or menace. If someone pushed him too far, he would probably just smash a disco ball. But since his last tour, for 2003’s multi-platinum “Justified”, he has learned how to project sex symbol edge.

During an ambitious, well-oiled spectacle of nearly three hours, this New Justin cursed, gyrated and mimicked bedroom acts with his lingerie-clad dancers (though he avoided any “wardrobe malfunctions”). He filmed himself with a hand-held camera as his band jammed to “What Goes Around”, making demonic “Blair Witch Project”-style faces. Then he raised his middle finger.

But the Old Justin swooped in regularly to reassure the tweens. During “Summer Love” he cooed that “I can’t wait to fall in love with you”. During “My Love” he asked, “Would you date me on the regular?” During “Cry Me a River”, a break-up ballad from 2003, he moaned, “Why did you leave me all alone?” No wonder the female screams were so bloodcurdling: He’s a rock star who can commit.

The show started off riveting. There was a round stage in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a curtain that often doubled as a video screen. (As Mr. Timberlake sang “Losing My Way”, about a crack addict named “Bob”, a ghostly gospel choir appeared on the scrim.) Band members flanked both sides of a giant riser where Mr. Timberlake and his back-up posse performed elaborate line-dances. Mr. Timberlake is remarkably fluid; at one point, he jerked back-and-forth as if he were a slab of vinyl being scratched by a DJ. Timbaland, the brilliant producer behind “Future/Sex”, suddenly appeared to rap along to a kinetic version of “Chop Me Up”. Then he took over as Mr. Timberlake disappeared for an inexplicably long, energy-sapping break.

As “scary” imagery bombarded the video scrim (monsters, Venetian masks, Nelly Furtado), Timbaland DJ’d snippets of classics like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'”. But he never struck a danceable groove. Crowd members sat down or wandered about until an R&B version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone” inspired an arena sing-along. Timbaland closed his set with the video for “Give It to Me”, the new single from his upcoming album. And — synergy! — guess who guest stars?

Mr. Timberlake, now sporting black pants and vest, returned with the upbeat “Rock Your Body” and some liquid breakdancing moves. Just as things picked up steam, he immediately shifted into an overlong ballad sequence, sitting at the keyboard for a “couple of songs that mean something very special to me”. (That included “Easy” by the Commodores.) But it’s not like anyone was going to leave. For one thing, he was required to bring “Sexy Back”. Plus: The internet had been buzzing that Andy Samberg was a surprise guest.

And sure enough, an MC appeared to salute the “biggest video on YouTube”. Mr. Timberlake and Mr. Samberg ran on stage dressed as tacky boy-band lotharios, with Christmas presents strapped to their groins. “Number one, cut a hole in a box”, they sang. (Let’s leave instructions two and three up to the imagination.) The crowd roared its approval and Mr. Timberlake couldn’t stop laughing. But Old Justin was not about to send the ladies home like this.

Mr. Timberlake reappeared in a t-shirt for one last ballad, proclaiming himself a simple guy from Tennessee. “There’s a one in a billion chance that something like this happens”, he said, confident enough to know he got what he deserves.

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