Usher, February 2024 (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation)
The high-flying opening seconds of Usher’s Super Bowl halftime show proved what most already know. An entire Cirque du Soleil–style extravaganza can surround Usher, and the R&B stalwart remains the center of attention. Performers can casually strut around on stilts. A massive squad of dancers can stand frozen in picturesque, contorted poses. One of the dancers can balance impossibly upright in a spectacular handstand atop another dancer’s head. Yet another dancer can dive through the air and land gracefully while a big brass band and drumline march about Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium.
The universe could be exploding around Usher in multiple dimensions. But then the 45-year-old singer breaks into a falsetto, and, suddenly, you’re sucked into the Usherverse, a realm where nothing matters except pure entertainment and thrills. The only thing that could divert attention at that point is if another superstar announced her new album and dropped a pair of records on the same night. But what are the odds?
An Usher performance isn’t easy; it appears effortless only on the surface because Usher is a certified five-star showman with a rigorous commitment to art, flair, and athleticism on stage. In the three decades since his self-titled debut, R&B has evolved from its sentimental roots into something slicker and colder. But Usher has remained devoted to the art of old-school seduction and scheming. Usher is a charmer at heart, with a healthy balance of dramatic flair that works flawlessly when calibrated to the impeccable degree incorporated into his Las Vegas residency over two years. While he wasn’t as flawless as he could be, if the idea for his halftime show was to create a world of beautiful chaos, Usher achieved that feat, packing 13 career-spanning songs into 13 breathless minutes.
Over the echoes of his flashy 1997 hit “My Way,” Usher opened the halftime show of Super Bowl LVIII dressed in head-to-toe white, including a floor-length bedazzled cape and matching studded gloves. Amid occasional microphone glitches, he led with a pair of choreo-rich numbers: the Confessions hit “Caught Up” and 8701’s dazzling “U Don’t Have to Call.”
“They said I wouldn’t be here today, but I am,” Usher proclaimed, kinda lying before launching straight into his fan-service serenade “Superstar” and a brass version of one of his sleekest records, “Love in This Club.” Really, no one who’s followed Usher’s career—from his self-titled 1994 debut to his star-making albums, 8701 and Confessions, and recent legacy tour—is surprised that Usher is performing at the Super Bowl. Least of all, Usher.
But the pretense is all part of the act, which involved Usher pulling out every glide, twirl, hip-thrust, and spin-move in his repertoire to sell the moment, to sell R&B as legitimate pop music. And, of course, going shirtless. His halftime set had all the energy of a juiced-up 12-year-old stealing the show during Thanksgiving family spats by doing endless backflips in front of relatives, unprompted. Could we have gotten a few more minutes of begging and pleading during his trio of ballads: “Nice & Slow,” “Burn,” and “ U Got It Bad”? Yes. Usher instead dipped off stage for an outfit change, ceding the stage to H.E.R., who riffed “Bad Girl” on guitar.
Usher slid through the night with ease. He pirouetted around Alicia Keys as if performing a mating dance to their duet “My Boo.” (Keys, behind a fiery red piano, wearing a stunning sequin corset bodysuit, made it through a poor opening note to deliver tender nostalgia.) A lighter setlist might’ve allowed Usher to savor more moments like this, channeling the sweet soulful duets of his past. But Usher, the exquisite performer that he is, went for maximum hype, spending the second half of his set running through a medley of hits, dancing improbably well on roller skates, bringing the best, flashiest elements and fanfare of his Vegas residency to the NFL stage.
This is the part where Usher shined, now sporting a sparkly black-and-blue ensemble, treating the stage like his personal VIP section (despite a surprisingly minimalist set design), offering a more palatable rendition of his EDM smash “OMG,” featuring Will.i.am. The city of Atlanta is a magnetic character in Usher’s Vegas act and predictably figured prominently and effectively in his halftime show, too, A-town stomps and all. Seeing stripper poles planted across the field highlighted the fact that Usher’s catalog works in multiple venues, be it nightclubs, bedrooms, or after-hours spots.
Thirteen minutes is simply too short for a true greatest hits selection, which meant no “U Remind Me,” “Lovers & Friends,” or “Climax.” The night became all the more amped by the emergence of Lil Jon and Ludacris, two of the hypest men on the planet, repping for all the millennial club girls sporting Going Out tops, sipping Smirnoff Ice to the soundtrack of crunk&B. “Yeah!” was a fitting finale to the show, Usher’s biggest single off his highest-selling album, Confessions, the era-defining masterpiece that made him the last Black artist to be certified diamond for selling 10 million copies in the United States.
Even though his Vegas residency already stamped his legacy, Usher seemed genuinely overwhelmed with the enormity of the halftime show when he looked up toward the sky during “Superstar,” with the spotlight on his face, still bright, blinding, and glowing after all these years. No matter how grimy R&B gets as a genre, Usher will be there smiling, fake-humble even, doing whatever it takes to put on a good show. It looks as if he hardly has to try.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork