Of all the things N.E.R.D. and Black Eyed Peas have in common – a progressive hip-hop sound, a talented live band, a vibrant catalog of songs – what most impressed Thursday’s crowd was a mutual friend.
That’s what happens when you’re homies with Justin Timberlake… or, to his friends, J.T.
The crowd at the sold-out Wiltern LG Theater went into an uproar midway through the Peas’ encore of “Where Is the Love?” when Timberlake casually strolled onstage to sing the song’s classic “People living, people dying…” hook. At that point, the promoters might as well have added Justin’s name to the marquee… at the top.
After “Where Is the Love?,” Timberlake busted into some beat-boxing, which gave Will.I.Am a great excuse to show off his freestyling talents, even as a stagehand (probably with N.E.R.D.) standing nearby yelled at them to clear the stage.
The second the lights came on for intermission, the questions started. “Do you think he’ll come out with N.E.R.D.?” “Do you think he’ll do any Justified songs?” “Do you think Cameron’s here?”
Timberlake’s girlfriend never made an appearance (unless she was one of hundreds of blondes hiding in the shadows of their trucker caps) but it wasn’t long before he was back onstage.
After N.E.R.D.’s backing band, Spymob, awkwardly played a couple of songs (Will and Justin were kicked off the stage for this?!?), Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shay joined the players for an opening salvo of tunes from the band’s just-released second LP, Fly or Die.
Once Hugo led the band into material from 2001’s In Search Of…, J.T. reentered, crooning along with Williams’ choruses on songs like “Things Are Getting Better” and “Provider.”
Timberlake took on the role of hypeman at times, encouraging the crowd to sing along, but he also often stepped out of the spotlight, letting Williams be the main ladies’ man.
The familiar material, like the bump and grind anthem “Brain,” got the best response, although there was a surprising amount of singing along to some of the Fly or Die material, particularly the R-rated “Backseat Love.”
As for the shy musician of the group, Hugo mostly hid behind his keyboards and samplers, but occasionally donned an electric guitar and even showed off some dance moves of his own.
N.E.R.D. left the stage after the sexy “Frontin’,” prompting Timberlake to take the mic and request, “Someone tell N.E.R.D. we ain’t goin’ home yet!” (Sorry, no Justified songs.)
Williams asked for pandemonium from the crowd, and that’s exactly what he got as the band broke into the opening chords of “Rock Star.” Things got even wilder once the frontman ripped his shirt off and started pulling fans onstage. Even Will.I.Am joined in for the finale, an infectious version of “Lapdance,” adding a new verse of his own and earning a high five from Justin.
The band fused some reggae into their sound for “Hey Mama,” during which Will, Taboo and Apl de Ap garnered huge applause for their dancing. “You got served,” someone yelled after Apl finished with a back flip.
The Peas then offered a treat to their “old-school fans” from their hometown in the form of their 1998 breakthrough single, “Joints & Jam.”
Then it was back to Elephunk tracks for the rest of the night, as the group ignored its second LP, 2000’s Bridging the Gap.
Will announced the next song would be dedicated to his mother and other strong women, which set up one of the evening’s highlights, “Shut Up.” Will and Fergie traded barbs and danced around each other like they were enacting a scene from “Rent.” Taboo and Apl played along, backing up Will and brushing off Fergie. The song came to a dramatic climax when Fergie channeled her inner Mary J. Blige and repeatedly belted out, “Is that all there is?,” holding the notes like a veteran R&B diva.
The performance had the crowd screaming like girls at an ‘NSYNC concert – and that was before J.T. appeared.
The N.E.R.D. and Black Eyed Peas tour hits the Joint in Las Vegas on Friday (March 26).