Roughly five years after bubblegum pop's Vaseline-lensed heyday, the boy "most likely to" is trash-talking the Grammys. He has survived the boy-band apocalypse and become a man.

"I could give you a bunch of analogies about why I'm still around that would sound like hippie self-help bullshit," he says, popping a throat lozenge. "'I saw an opportunity and I took it?' Fuck you. Sure, there's a lot of luck involved. But on some level I have to believe in my ability. And I'm not apologizing to anyone. I worked fucking hard to get here." Timberlake is done chatting. In 30 minutes, he'll have a group prayer with his backing band and dancers. Then he'll be whisked underneath the stage to wait for the madness to begin.

Outside the dimly lit serenity of his dressing room, the gears are grinding furiously toward showtime. Opening act Pink, fresh off her 45-minute set of you-go-girl-isms, tears down the backstage hallway in a fuchsia bathrobe. "Great crowd tonight," she yells to her handler. "I think they were all drunk."

Nope. Sorry, Pink. They're hammered. All in the name of J.T.

It's the most understated song of the night, and for the purist, the set closer, "(Another Song) All Over Again"—a slow-building, "gimme one more chance, baby" weeper—is the clear highlight. No solos, no costumes, no gyrating come-ons, just "Jaaaaayyyy-Teeeeee" underlining his "moment" by trumping style with substance. This is how Timberlake made it to the other side of the 'N Sync era: with his voice. Not the falsetto Jackson-lite of his hits, but the strong, wide-ranging blue-eyed Memphis soul burning in his gut. As the closing notes of "Another Song" give way to the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony," Timberlake, gray T-shirt soaked through with sweat, takes a four-corner bow with his backing band and dancers. The mass exodus of horny, happy drunks begins, everyone walking, stumbling—and, in some cases, being carried—from the arena. All except for the two frat boys who insist on staying behind to yell—again—for Timberlake to sing "Dick in a Box." As for Timberlake, he'll get a quick shower and a ride back to the hotel. Then a few hours of sleep before an early-morning wake-up call. As his fleet of souped-up tour buses—each furnished with a flat-screen TV, leather seats, bunks, and a nicely stocked bar—weaves through traffic, Tiny relaxes for the first time all day. His night of crowd control included, among other things, breaking up a tag-team match that involved eight women, a gay man, and lots of beer. Nothing a gentle choke hold and a few choice words couldn't soothe. "I've never seen that many girls so drunk," he says, relaxing his ample frame into the couch. "Those girls can drink." At 1:30 in the morning, the lobby of the Westin Hotel is empty, but Timberlake's two bodyguards head through the glass doors first just to make sure. Coast sufficiently clear, Timberlake—hoodie pulled tight over his head, hands in his pockets—emerges from the bus and slowly walks toward the elevator. At first, nobody sees the twentysomething female hidden behind a marble pillar. "Ma'am," Tiny says curtly, shaking his head deliberately for emphasis. She tries to defend herself: "But I'm a guest of the—" "Ma'am," Tiny repeats, more sternly this time. "Not tonight, ma'am. You can take the next one." Timberlake, exhausted, appears not to notice the minor ruckus. And with a polite nod, he vanishes behind the gold elevator doors. Hopefully he's got something a little more potent than cream soda waiting for him upstairs.