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Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show: the good, the bad, and the Prince

First off: Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show didn’t sound great.

Pepsi Super Bowl LII Halftime Show Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In one performance, Justin Timberlake made us remember what makes his music so irresistible and, at the same time, why we’re so skeptical of his new stuff.

Timberlake gave a jumbled, shiny, at times sonically challenged dance exhibition at his Super Bowl halftime show. Decked out in a Duck Dynasty-evoking suit and orange bandana (a seeming homage to his new persona and album Man of The Woods), Timberlake danced his way in and out of Minneapolis’s U.S. Bank Stadium, briefly showcasing his current sound before falling back on his true hits. The set was plagued by strange sound mixing and editing, with Timberlake’s vocals, especially in the first segment of the performance, often drowned out by the instrumentation. (Timberlake had a live band as well as a marching band backing him up.)

Prior to his performance, Timberlake teased a surprise, which materialized in the form of a giant projection of Prince, Minneapolis’s hometown hero who died in April of 2016, culminating in a lighting effect that turned the neighborhood purple.

The tribute to Prince was the standout moment of a mixed performance. Here are three things to know about Timberlake’s halftime show:

1) The sound mixing was way off

The most puzzling thing about Timberlake’s performance was its muddy sound, which came to the fore in the opening moments of the performance as Timberlake performed his new song “Filthy,” a synthy, gooey mix laced with a falsetto. Timberlake kicked off “Filthy” in a staged “basement” club area below the U.S. Bank arena. But because the song employs the slinky, wub-wub manipulations of Timberlake’s voice, there was a disconnect between what Timberlake was singing and the electronic warble we were hearing. It was a curious, chaotic beginning, and it set a strange tone for the rest of the show.

2) Timberlake reminded us why we still love his old songs

The good news is that after that strange beginning, Timberlake segued into what made Timberlake a superstar: his old hits.

Unencumbered by the synthed-out vocals of “Filthy,” Timberlake rolled into “Rock Your Body,” his first major solo hit and the song that played a huge role in the controversial 2004 Super Bowl performance with Janet Jackson — only this time he pointedly cut off the song just before the lyric that caused all the commotion back then. He also churned out a career-spanning medley of hits like “Cry Me a River,” “SexyBack,” “Señorita,” and “Mirrors.”

Timberlake was clearly in his comfort zone with these songs, and without the weird disconnect of Timberlake’s embellished vocals, it was easier to appreciate his talents as a pop star who can sing, dance, and strut effortlessly. The cacophony that was the beginning of his performance actually made Timberlake’s older songs seem better and stronger by comparison — to the point I actually found myself mildly delighted by Timberlake closing the show with the maligned earworm known as “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from the Trolls motion picture soundtrack.

3) The Prince tribute was the best, and most controversial, part of the halftime show

Heading into the halftime show, the big controversy surrounding Timberlake’s performance was a rumor that it would include a hologram of Prince as a nod to Minneapolis’s favorite musical son. But following a quick and vocal rebuke of the idea by Prince’s fans — who have not forgotten that Prince and Timberlake had a spat that ended with Timberlake dissing Prince with a lyric on the song “Give It To Me” — it was confirmed that the hologram wouldn’t be a part of the performance.

Well, there wasn’t a hologram, but there was a projection of Prince behind Timberlake as he played The Purple One’s “I Would Die For You” and “Until the End of Time.” But despite the controversy, the vocals sounded great, the projection was a smart homage to Prince’s own iconic Super Bowl halftime performance in 2007, and the tribute even featured an effect that turned the streetlights and buildings surrounding the stadium purple.

Whatever his history with Prince, Timberlake delivered on the tribute, and reminded us what made Prince a genius in the process. Amid a production that was dodgy in parts, Timberlake’s homage to Prince was a highlight, however controversial it might have been.

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