Timing really is everything in pop music. At various times in the last 20 years, an Usher Super Bowl set might have seemed too soon, too late or just not quite right. But while the pre-game debate was real about whether Usher was thuddingly obvious or a reach as a halftime headliner, by the time he stepped into the Allegiant Stadium spotlight Super Bowl LXVIII on Sunday night (Feb. 11) it should have been clear to everyone that the time was right for Usher to take the world’s biggest stage. And with his 15-minute, crowd-pleasing, decade-spanning set of classic hits, he reconfirmed his status as one of one of pop’s greatest living entertainers.
It was the culmination of a half-decade of subtle gains in career momentum for Mr. Raymond, who never totally disappeared, but spent most of the mid-to-late ’10s in commercial erosion amidst underwhelming sales and some tough headlines. But a handful of winning next-gen collabs, an impossibly perfect Hustlers cameo, a well-received Vegas residency (and a meme-spawning Tiny Desk performance) and his biggest chart hit in 10 years (“Good Good”) all served to both remind of his peerless pop and R&B legacy and revitalize his contemporary relevance. With a strong new album (Coming Home) arriving on Friday — just a couple days after the announcement of an upcoming arena tour, his first in nearly a decade, and a month before the 20th anniversary of his Confessions blockbuster — the stage was set in about every conceivable way on Sunday for Usher to answer any remaining “Usher??” questioning around his Super Bowl appearance with a big ol’ “YEAH!”
Unsurprisingly, he did exactly that. From the second he slipped off his robe to transition from early signature hit “My Way” to 2005 smash “Caught Up,” Usher was in control, gliding through about a dozen of his biggest hits — all top 10s on the Billboard Hot 100 hits, except the enduring Confessions fan-favorites “Superstar” and “Bad Girl” — with the effortlessness of a guy who’s been informally training for this opportunity his entire career. Big-name guests were greeted, shirts were shed, rollerskates were rollerskated and 15 minutes went by in a brilliantly choreographed blink.
Really, for a performance billed as the longest in Super Bowl history, the set was still perhaps most notable for its efficiency: expertly plotted transitions like the opening verse to “Nice & Slow” seamlessly igniting the hissing intro of “Burn” minimized downtime, while guests Alicia Keys, H.E.R., will.i.am and Lil Jon were smartly all given their own brief spotlight moments while Usher executed his costume changes and caught his changes. And while some of the buzzed-about home-run guests never quite materialized — sorry, BeyHive and Beliebers — the guests present provided an ideal spread of Usher’s underrated career versatility, equally convincing tearing the club up with Lil Jon, going future-pop with will.i.am and doing classic pop&B love duets with Keys.
The performance thrived more on small moments than true OH S–T jaw-droppers — not like Usher was ever likely to top Rihanna’s reveal from last year in that department. But it was such a rich production that you could’ve missed some of the best details, like the marching band that punctuated set closer “Yeah!” spelling out U-S-H-E-R in the bottom-left corner of your screen, or the wrist-watch graphic projected onto the stage below him during “Nice & Slow” highlighting a 7:00 (on the dot) time. And Usher certainly showcased some of his more unique skills as a performer, turning the stage into a roller-rink (and skating between will.i.am’s legs) on “OMG” and tearing his top off during the climactic “U Got It Bad,” flaunting a still-chiseled physique that should make him the seething envy of 45-year-old males worldwide.
If there was fault to be found with Usher’s halftime performance, it would likely focus on the insufficient mic-ing on his early vocals, which undersold softer moments like his falsetto’d verses on “U Don’t Have to Call” — he’s a strong vocalist, but not so much a powerhouse that he couldn’t have used a little extra juice there. And while it’s not tragic that stellar current hit “Good Good” didn’t make the cut for the tracklist, it was a little bit of a bummer that 2010’s “OMG” was his only song from the last 15 years that did — while most of Usher’s biggest songs may have come pre-Obama, he’s never stopped releasing excellent singles and albums (and had sizable hits with a number of them). It does Ush a little bit of a disservice to present him solely as a catalog act.
But these are relatively small complaints for a thoroughly satisfying, comeback-capping performance from Usher Raymond. “They said I wouldn’t be here today,” he commented while dedicating his rendition of “Superstar” to his mother. “Hey Mama, we made it.” From another performer — especially one with Usher’s exceptional resumé — it could have easily come off as Khaledian bluster, but for Ush, it felt like a fairly well-earned moment of triumph. And whoever they are, they probably won’t be making such comments again anytime soon.
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