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Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Sexy Roller Skating Spectacle

It was always a fool’s errand to discount the talent and power of Usher leading up to the R&B icon’s Super Bowl LVIII halftime show. Sure, you could argue that the height of the crooner’s success peaked two decades ago, despite his several hits in the years since. But after the rollicking display of jaw-dropping showmanship and sex-on-legs charisma that he brought to the world’s biggest stage, there is no denying that Usher has been—and always will be—a certified hitmaker.

If you’ve paid even a fraction of attention to current events over the last couple of weeks, you know that the Super Bowl has been superseded by celebrity. This is, apparently, no longer a sports event, but a satellite stop on Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. Newscasters have spent their airtime, pointers in hand, showing viewers how Swift could make it from her four-show run in Japan to Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium in time to watch her boyfriend Travis Kelce play. (Mind you, Swift is merely attending the game, not performing.) But Swift’s successful journey across the world is nothing compared to Usher’s journey to the Super Bowl stage; this performance was the real can’t-miss sight of the night. When Usher performed, there was no one else in the stadium worth watching.

Well, that’s partially true. There were, of course, some special guests who joined Usher onstage to celebrate his career’s longevity. But make no mistake: This was Usher’s show, something triple threat (singer, dancer, and swoon-worthy heartthrob-slash-underwear model ) was intent on proving from the jump.

A fake MPA red band warning dropped just before the set began, warning that it was rated “U,” and that it could cause “singing, dancing, sweating, gyrating, and possible relationship issues.” If there’s anyone who can talk a big game and back it up, it’s Usher. After Rihanna’s less-than-rousing (but still very fun) halftime show last year, the bar was lower than it has been in recent years, which saw J.Lo, Shakira, and the Weeknd deliver exciting medleys of their biggest hits. But Usher made commanding the entire stage with his singular presence look like no sweat—despite how much he was visibly perspiring.

The actual show began with those unforgettable synths from “Yeah!,” enough to make any millennial in your vicinity sit up straight in their seat. But we’d have to wait a little longer for what would inevitably be the showstopping final number. First, he opened with “Caught Up,” a lesser-known but still wildly popular song from his biggest album, 2004’s Confessions. “Caught Up” set the tone for the show, which maintained the song’s high-octane energy all the way through, even at its softer points when Usher the balladeer reminded us exactly what his voice can do.

The show was a massive spectacle from its start, kicking off with some Cirque du Soleil-level acrobatics. As many feathers, sequins, and stilts as there were to look at it, it was Usher’s fluid choreography that drew the eye. He hasn’t lost a single bit of the agility that made him such a star. Usher may be 45 years old, but he’s oiled up those joints, thrown some titanium bits into the knees, and kept it moving. Thanks to a throwback headset mic—the choice amplifier for him and his 2000s-era contemporaries like Britney Spears and NSYNC—Usher was free to pop, lock, drop, thrust, and turn as much as he pleased.

And that he did! Usher plowed through “Love in this Club” before taking a breath during “My Boo,” when featured artist Alicia Keys gave him a much-needed break. Keys, unfortunately, had a little bit of vocal crack at the beginning of the song. But once her vocals were warmed, there was no stopping the nostalgia train from chugging into the station as the two of them sang the hit responsible for the conception of thousands of children around the world.

Producer Jermaine Dupri popped up to hype the audience even more, as Usher milked the remaining singles from Confessions—”Confessions Pt. II” and “Burn”—for all they were worth. “U Got It Bad” followed, with all of us viewing at home relating to the title of the song as Usher ripped off his jacket, revealing a white tank that stayed on for nary a moment before that, too, was removed to reveal the singer’s ripped body. Usher has always used his appearance as part of his appeal; he understands that he’s sexy, and he uses it to his advantage. The music sounds even better because someone so damn gorgeous is singing it, and it should come as no surprise that he used that effect to hypnotize the millions of people watching.

Photo of Usher shirtless singing at the Super Bowl Halftime Show

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation

But it wasn’t only his looks that made the set so mesmerizing. After a quick change, during which H.E.R.—the music industry’s foremost psyop, appearing at every single awards show and performance venue under the sun—played a bit of guitar, Usher was back. Now, he was on wheels. Usher and a team of roller skating dancers paraded around the stage to “Bad Girl” and “OMG” with guest will.i.am. before hitting some wildly impressive moves to a cover of Lil’ Jon and DJ Snake’s “Turn Down For What.” “My Boo” might’ve resulted in thousands of pregnancies over the last 20 years, but “Turn Down For What” gave hundreds of thousands of white people alcohol poisoning in 2013.

The song was just a tee-up to the grand finale: “Yeah!” Despite being from 2004, “Yeah!” is a song known to every generation, all around the world. It may be ubiquitous, but it’s one of those tracks that just doesn’t get old. But it was more than just a dose of wistful reminiscence, as Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris proved when they hit the stage together. “Yeah!” is the kind of floor-filler that musicians just don’t make anymore, and the energy that radiated throughout Allegiant Stadium was palpable, even through the television screen. As the song ended with the marching band from top-rated HBCU Jackson State University playing an electrifying instrumental version of the song, it was clear that Usher’s set wasn’t just a career victory lap, but a loving thank-you to Black culture and the institutions that have kept his star shining so bright for so long.

With the swing of his hips and that velvety smooth voice, Usher reminded all of us why he deserved to play this stage. This was his moment, and he rose to the occasion. The wildest part of the entire performance? What we saw wasn’t even close to the total of Usher’s hits. He chose to shirk special appearances by his protege Justin Bieber for “Somebody to Love (Remix)” or Pitbull for “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love.” Instead, he basked in the culture—and specific people—that brought him up and made him a star. “We made it, mama,” Usher said at the top of the set. It was a tender moment, a reminder that Usher’s innate magnetism and endless gratitude have made him as lovable as his talent has. His set was a reflection of that, an effective mixture of nostalgia and pure, irrefutable talent and charisma. It was the kind of retrospective showcase we haven’t seen in years, and one that will be hard to top come 2025.



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