It’s Monday morning after Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, and once again, football fans were treated to a dramatic, exciting NFL championship game—no matter how you felt about the eventual outcome (the Philadelphia Eagles bested the defending champion New England Patriots, in case you somehow haven’t heard). That’s been a trend over the last several years. We’ve been lucky to witness the kind of truly entertaining, last-minute, nail-biting contests that fans, players, team owners and advertisers alike dream of; games that match the outlandish pomp and circumstance that surrounds the Super Bowl, regardless of what happens on the field.

It’s always a bit anti-climactic when the game itself is an ugly one. One particular game comes to mind in that regard: The Indianapolis Colts‘ victory over the Chicago Bears in 2007’s Super Bowl XLI. That year saw future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning finally win his first championship—and the bout’s MVP award—with a so-so performance in a soggy game during which both teams struggled against the elements. You’d think that game would fade into the past, forgotten among so many objectively fantastic finals.

However, Super Bowl XLI is still spoken about with great frequency and seems to get mentioned ahead of the big game every year, and the reason for that is quite simple: it was the year that Prince delivered what was unquestionably the greatest halftime show in Super Bowl history. The downpour didn’t vex him like it did the Bears and Colts. It just seemed to make him stronger, cooler. By the time he had the rain-drenched crowd singing along to “Purple Rain”, this performance had become the stuff of rock and roll legend, the high watermark by which we will forevermore measure halftime shows.

Prince’s Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show, 2007 (via NFL):

The Super Bowl halftime show has largely changed directions since then, moving toward current pop superstars in place of seasoned rock veterans. Performers this decade have included Lady GagaColdplay, Beyoncé (twice), Bruno Mars (twice), Katy PerryLenny KravitzRed Hot Chili PeppersMadonnaBlack Eyed PeasUsher, and more of their A-List ilk, and more than a few have been fantastic. But if you read down the list for the decade that preceded it—the 2000s—it paints a notably different picture: The WhoBruce Springsteen & The E Street BandTom Petty & The HeartbreakersThe Rolling StonesPaul McCartneyU2, as well as Prince.

This year’s Super Bowl pop star was Justin Timberlake, who put on a glitzy performance featuring extensive, elaborate choreography alongside a mashup of many of his most famous tracks. The production value in itself was enough to provide some kicks despite the fact that Timberlake seemed noticeably less enthused and energetic while performing these songs than he once was. The mash-up included a take on “Rock Your Body”, which he clipped just before the “Have you naked by the end of this song” lyric that dropped 100 million jaws when it ended with Janet Jackson‘s notorious “wardrobe malfunction” during in 2004.

Watch Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII halftime show in Minneapolis, featuring a tribute to Prince, via the NFL‘s YouTube page:

Ahead of Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII performance, word had floated around the Internet that a Prince hologram would be joining him onstage. While that did not end up being the case, Timberlake did pay tribute to Prince by playing at the feet of the same billowing sail and silhouette that appeared at the climax of the Super Bowl XLI halftime show.

Justin Timberlake honoring Prince at his Super Bowl LII halftime show (via NFL):

There was no Prince hologram, although one could argue that a hundred-foot-tall projection of him serves a similar purpose. However, the tribute—featuring the vocals from Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” over the music from JT’s “Until The End of Time”–did feel sincere and, certainly, reverent of his immense legacy. The image of a particular purple symbol illuminated against a birds-eye view of the city served as a nice added touch. It was meant as a grand gesture for a larger-than-life figure, and Timberlake clearly took it seriously.

In a special live episode of The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon which aired following the game, Timberlake spoke about his halftime show performance with excitement. But when he began to speak about the Prince tribute portion, his tone became notably more subdued. “It’s a moment for me if I’m being quite honest,” he said. “He’s always been the pinnacle of musicianship for me.”

He continued to gush about the incredible access that allowed him to devise the tribute: “I mean, you have to understand. We got the actual vocal stems from ‘I Would Die 4 U’, the actual recording, and then we got uncut footage from his performance of it in Purple Rain, and somehow, by the grace of…probably Prince…looking down on us, it synced up!…I just wanted to take the opportunity to do something special for not only this city but also my favorite musician of all time.”

Timberlake also, quite seriously, conferred with the ever-knowledgeable and tapped-in Questlove, whom he referred to as a sort of “gatekeeper” for Prince fans; an official arbiter regarding the propriety of his Prince tribute. Quest gave it a positive, though not overly-enthusiastic “it was dope.” And that’s about the best that Justin could have hoped for.

Watch Justin Timberlake speak about the halftime show performance with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show live from Minneapolis after the game, via The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon‘s YouTube page:

Everyone involved seemed to speak about the tribute in a measured, meticulous tone, and the reason for that is fairly obvious. Despite the best and most respectful of intentions, no matter how well it went in practice, it’s still not so difficult imagine Prince scoffing at the entire charade. Earlier, the leaked pre-game news of the supposed hologram had prompted an outcry among Prince fans. Many of them cited a 1998 Guitar World interview in which he addressed the idea of such digital collaborations directly: “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon.”

We do know that the homage was sanctioned by Prince’s estate. As they explained 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. The two pieces of footage that appeared on the screens were licensed from the ‘Purple Rain’ movie and a vintage performance in Syracuse, NY.”
But we also know that a large contingent of fans feel that he may not have been into it. Even Timberlake, in discussing it with Fallon and Questlove, seemed abundantly aware that this was a touchy prospect. Sportscaster Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN and currently with their subsidiary The Undefeated, perhaps best summed up the skeptical Prince fanbase’s feelings, in GIF form:

The jury is out over whether Prince would have approved of Justin’s tribute at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. Prince was an idiosyncratic person. He was frequently misunderstood. It was often difficult to know how he felt about certain things, why he acted a certain way. But what was always apparent was his incredible talent, and that mix of mystery and magic was what won him so many millions of adoring fans. His death was a huge hit for countless people, and they all want to show their appreciation in some way. Some just have bigger platforms from which to do so than others.

Justin Timberlake is an extremely talented entertainer, and we’re glad he’s back in the mix. He just released a brand-new album, Man of the Woods, and announced an extensive list of tour dates that will keep him on the road throughout this year and into 2019. We might go catch him live. We’re sure he puts on a fun show. He’s got nothing on Prince, and that’s okay. Nobody should ever have to be held to such unattainable standards. But by directly referencing Prince and his legendary halftime show during his own performance, Justin inserted himself into the conversation and invited the inevitable comparisons…

…and for those keeping score, Prince is still the true all-time Super Bowl halftime show MVP.

Watch a mini-doc on Prince’s Super Bowl XLI halftime show below via the NFL‘s YouTube page: