The last time Justin Timberlake hit the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime stage, he was a reinvented solo artist, fresh off a seven-year stint with heartthrob boy band NSYNC. This year, he stepped out as an understated performer with 14 years of baggage on his shoulders.
In 2004, Timberlake infamously pulled off a piece of co-performer Janet Jackson’s costume, exposing her breast, then went on to release four studio albums — the most recent of which, “Man of the Woods,” he released just last week — while Jackson’s career slowly spiraled, amassing nationwide complaints about the music industry’s double standards. Viewers were intensely critical of Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII showing even before he stepped on stage, but once the spotlight found him Sunday night, only one word could be used to describe his performance: anticlimactic.
The Philadelphia Eagles up by 10, Timberlake kicked off the halftime performance with his most recent hit “Filthy,” donning a leather jacket with fringed sleeves. His transition from “Rock Your Body,” a song he performed with Jackson in the 2004 halftime show, to “SexyBack” was less than seamless, and his vocals were drowned out by the sheer number of musicians and dancers accompanying him on stage. Each song excerpt was short and rushed, which made it difficult for viewers to keep up. His dancing ability, however, made up for disappointing production aspects. Timberlake gave new meaning to the word “smooth” as he and his backup dancers performed a hip hop/retro hybrid, effortlessly dropping to their knees on the field’s NFL logo and sneaking in some old-school, synchronized popping.
In the most anticipated moment of the night, Timberlake sat down at a white piano as a giant projection of Minnesota’s own Prince appeared on a sheet. Together, they sang Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” as the musical legend towered over Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium. Timberlake, who faced earlier condemnation over his rumored decision to sing with a holographic version of the late musician, found a way to honor Prince in his hometown without disrespecting him.
Aside from the Prince tribute, there were few standout moments: The University of Minnesota Marching Band joyously played their instruments in a routine choreographed to “Suit and Tie,” and dozens of dancers joined Timberlake for a colorful rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from the film “Trolls.” Timberlake closed out the show by running into the stands and taking a selfie with a young fan.
Super Bowl enthusiasts have come to expect halftime show outrageousness, but aside from the thrill of hearing some JT throwbacks, the performance was lackluster. Timberlake did not enter the stadium on a golden lion. He did not gift us with any Left Shark memes. He did not somersault through the air on wires. Timberlake played it safe all the way to an unimpressive comeback.