Bulletproof at the box office. That’s what happens when you’re a pop superstar. You can sell out arenas whether your latest album is hot or not.
That was the case with Lady Gaga two years ago after a relatively modest-selling “Joanne.” Same with Katy Perry after her quickly vanishing “Witness” album last year. Ditto Britney Spears, who sells out in Vegas even though her last million-selling album was three records ago.
Justin Timberlake is the latest example.
His reputation as a concert performer is so sterling that he will fill Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul not once this weekend, but twice. It doesn’t matter that his new album, “Man of the Woods,” is one of the most forgettable records of 2018, destined to make some of the year-end worst-of lists.
To be sure, its first single, “Filthy,” had its moment on the radio, while the ensuing “Say Something” — featuring respected country star Chris Stapleton — had legs. But despite making an initial splash, the album faded faster than the Vikings against the Buffalo Bills.
Nonetheless, Timberlake has momentum, sparked by his fast-paced, multi-hit halftime performance at the Super Bowl, a slot the music industry considers the most impactful media impression an artist can make. And he put a cherry on top by performing two numbers that night live on “The Tonight Show,” and also chatting it up with host Jimmy Fallon, his good buddy.
Timberlake’s momentum has been building since he established himself as a terrific song-and-dance man with the launch of his solo career 16 years ago. Actually, it started long before that.
Perhaps more so than anyone in today’s pop world, the winner of 10 Grammys and four Emmys was reared to be a superstar.
The son of a Baptist church choir director, Justin Randall Timberlake performed gospel and country music as a kid around his hometown of Memphis. At age 10, billed as Justin Randall, he appeared on the national TV talent contest “Star Search” in a cowboy get-up. He lost, but his command of the stage was apparent (find it on YouTube).
When he was 12 and 13, Justin re-emerged on television in a more winning way on Disney’s “The New Mickey Mouse Club,” along with such future stars as singers Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and JC Chasez and actors Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell.
If that was the equivalent of performing arts high school, Timberlake moved on to college, majoring in pop superstardom, when he joined N’ Sync the next year. With that ’90s boy band, he conquered the pop world with such hits as “Bye Bye Bye” and sold-out concert tours around the world, plus appearances on the Academy Awards, the Olympics and the Super Bowl.
In concert, it was obvious who the star of the five-man boy band was. Timberlake, its youngest member, generated the biggest reaction in concert whenever he sang lead or did some fancy dancing. Even in interview situations, the other members deferred to the teenager in the group, their unofficial spokesman/leader, who answered with ease and humor.
With his burgeoning prominence coupled with a starring role in a Disney Channel movie, solo stardom was inevitable for Timberlake. Make that immediate, with his breakout on the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, followed by the release weeks later of his hotly anticipated first solo CD, “Justified,” which debuted at No. 2.
On his first solo effort, Timberlake explored his R&B roots, with fans enthusiastically responding to the hits “Cry Me Like a River” and “Rock Your Body.”
Even though he was the hottest thing to emerge from boy-band mania, the newly minted solo star decided to play it smart and safe. Realizing it might be challenging to headline in an arena trek after just one album, he teamed with his old Mickey Mouse Club pal Aguilera for 2003’s co-headlining Justified/Stripped Tour. To no one’s surprise, JT, with his all-around skills, upstaged her every night.
Keen to collaborate
Despite his youth, Timberlake understood the value of collaboration: Doing “The Barry Gibb Talk Show” with Fallon on “Saturday Night Live” to demonstrate his comic chops; performing with the Black Eyed Peas on “Where Is the Love,” a topical single and gigantic seller in 2003 that earned a Grammy nomination for record of the year; and hooking up with Janet Jackson in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime for maximum exposure in the now-infamous wardrobe malfunction performance.
With that unexpected black mark on his résumé, Timberlake shifted gears, turning to films such as the 2007 indie “Alpha Dog” and, much later, the high-profile “The Social Network” (2010) and “Friends With Benefits” (2011), demonstrating his acting acumen and proving he could be a team player.
The savvy Timberlake positioned himself as an all-around talent, a triple threat with enough comic and acting chops to join “SNL” if he liked (he won four Emmys for his “SNL” work) as well as the musical prowess to deliver two more smash solo albums, 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” (featuring the single “SexyBack”) and 2013’s “The 20/20 Experience” (featuring “Suit & Tie”).
“The 20/20 Experience” led to a stadium tour, co-headlining with rap mogul Jay-Z, since the two had collaborated on each other’s new albums.
After leaving N’ Sync, Timberlake became in demand as a singer, songwriter and producer, working with a series of superstars including Madonna, Michael Jackson, Rihanna, T.I. and Duran Duran.
Timberlake was drafted to join Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel and others as the voice of one of the main characters in the 2016 animated movie “Trolls.” Maybe more significantly, he also contributed a song to the movie — the invigorating “Can’t Stop This Feeling,” which zoomed to No. 1 and became not only the bestselling tune of the year but JT’s new signature song.
Maybe his coolest collaboration is a mashup of music and comedy — the ongoing “History of Rap” series that he’s done with Fallon on both “The Tonight Show” and “SNL.” Now there’s a pair of superstars who should tour arenas together.
But instead Timberlake is back concentrating on his own musical career since the February release of “Man of the Woods.” His most eclectic and experimental album, it suffers from a lack of creative focus, as he mines funk, R&B, pop, country, folk, Southern soul and Americana with no thread weaving the songs together. There are some high points such as “Sauce” with its playful, Prince-like sass and “Morning Light,” a slice of homey Southern soul with Alicia Keys. Unfortunately, there are also many dubious (albeit mature) moments as the 37-year-old surprisingly settles into mundane middle age with the campfire-cozy “Flannel” and the John Mayer-ish “Living Off the Land.”
However comfortable the married father of a 3-year-old has become, Timberlake is discovering a truism of the pop world: After you’ve had three blockbuster albums and earned an unimpeachable reputation as an outstanding performer, you’re as good as gold at the box office even if you did poop with “Man of the Woods.”