An elaborately staged tribute spawned a creative controversy at the Halftime Show of Super Bowl 2018, where Justin Timberlake saluted Prince with a digitized duet of "I Would Die 4 U."

Performing live at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Prince's hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Timberlake harmonized with the late musician's actual vocal track, transforming the funky synth-pop hit into an R&B slow-jam. Meanwhile, images from Purple Rain were projected behind him, and a Prince symbol lit up the surrounding streets in a purple glow.

"It's a moment for me, if I'm being quite honest," Timberlake later told The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon of the performance. "Because [Prince]'s always been the pinnacle of musicianship for me ... I just wanted to use that opportunity to do something special for this city but, most of all, for my favorite musician of all-time."

Even Roots drummer Questlove, a noted Prince diehard, gave the Timberlake performance his seal of approval, calling it "dope." So why did an enormous chunk of the viewing, tweeting public want to crucify the former NSYNC singer for a seemingly respectful salute to one of his recently departed heroes? Turns out, there's a lot to unpack.

Even if their back-and-forth never rose to the level of legitimate "beef," the two artists still shared a tense history. During an Emmy Awards after-party in August 2006, one month after Timberlake released his chart-topping single "SexyBack," Prince reportedly told the crowd, "For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!" — a commented widely interpreted as a jab at the former NSYNC singer.

Timberlake appeared to respond with two disses the following year. At the Golden Globes ceremony in January, the singer presented the Best Original Song - Motion Picture award and wound up accepting on Prince's behalf. (Presenter Hugh Grant revealed later on that the Purple One was "stuck in traffic.") "Well, I guess Prince couldn't be here," Timberlake said with a smirk before crouching in front of the microphone — a possible swipe at the songwriter's 5-foot-three-inch height. Three months later, Timberlake appeared on producer Timbaland's single "Give It to Me," singing a lyric many interpreted as a response to the "SexyBack" attack: “Now if sexy never left, then why is everybody on my shit? / Don’t hate on me just because you didn’t come up with it."

The drama quieted until 2018 — but before the Super Bowl. Days before the sporting spectacle, the singer held a listening party for his fifth LP, Man of the Woods, at Prince's Chanhassen estate, Paisley Park. Though Timberlake praised the late artist during a press conference, calling him "such a big idol of mine," some observers criticized the event for allowing alcohol (via a temporary liquor license) when Prince famously banned it on the premises during his lifetime.

Some fans were already irritated by the idea of Timberlake partying at Prince's home, and their complaints only swelled with the rumor that he planned to utilize a Prince hologram for his Super Bowl slot. The late musician despised that developing technology, calling it "the most demonic thing imaginable" in a 1998 Guitar World interview.

But Sheila E. quieted that rumbling, tweeting, "Family, I spoke w/Justin 2nite and he shared heartfelt words of respect for Prince & the Purple fans. I look 4wrd 2 seeing what I’m sure is going 2 be a spectacular halftime show. There is no hologram."

Given the pre-Super Bowl hubbub, many fans were ready to pounce on Timberlake's performance. And while the rumored hologram didn't appear, some felt his projected image was too close for comfort. (In that same Guitar World interview, Prince criticized the possibility of digitally rendering "a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past.")

But Prince's estate praised the singer's city-wide salute, writing in a statement, "Justin Timberlake, the NFL, and the City of Minneapolis used the stadium and the city to give a beautiful hometown tribute to Prince."

None of us can be certain of Prince's reaction — to the Super Bowl "duet" or to Timberlake's reverent comments. Regardless, that wide shot of Minneapolis bathed in purple remains an indelible image.

 

Prince's History at the Grammys