If anyone has the right to sit on a throne in the middle of Las Vegas, it’s Usher. The King of R&B, whose residency graced the city for 18 months, has earned his crown as an ambassador of near-peerless showmanship, luscious escapism and a good time. He’s an old-school performer, the kind to give and give, to one-up himself on a ceaseless quest to entertain. And so the 45-year-old resident star of Vegas (with all due respect to Adele) opened his Super Bowl half-time show – an achievement explicitly aimed as both a celebration of his 30-year career and a continuation of it – bedecked in regal white suit, flanked with circus performers, and meticulously, mellifluously hitting his marks.
The 15-minute show – an extra two on the normal runtime, to account for his vast catalog – was a frenetic and daring, if at times chaotic and uncharacteristically wobbly, display of showmanship from a performer who who has no reason to prove his bona fides but went for it nonetheless. His mic was live, dance moves locked and loaded, and, at one point, roller skates on. Ever the audience pleaser and libido disrupter – the show opened with a mock “U” rating from Apple Music, for risk of “gyrating” that “may cause relationship issues” – Usher turned the football field into a cornucopia of dance gymnastics and nearly sprinted through a nostalgia tour of hits.
This was to be the climax of the Usher renaissance, his strenuous efforts to turn the country on – and back to R&B – with his new album Coming Home, released just two days before this legacy-cementing show. Usher seemed at times to feel the weight of the moment, particularly in the first half. Hustling for the mark, drenched in sweat, letting the backing track take a few notes – one could detect the flurry of nerves. The songs barely had time to land, let alone deliver the type of ecstatic, carnal punch that is Usher’s mark. Opener Caught Up backflipped into U Don’t Have to Call into Superstar into Love in this Club, in what felt like the blink of an eye. (Perhaps it was because attempting to keep eyes on the singer amid the cacophonous choreography and tracking camera made time fly.)
But Usher is, by now, a statesman in the art of big tent performance. If he seemed to struggle at times, to keep up with his own blistering pace, he also never missed a note, his voice as velvety and limber as ever, the rococo turns of his falsetto intact. Not that there were many opportunities to sit with it – for better and at times for worse, the heavy lift of this task was spread to many hands and a 14-song setlist trying to do too much. Alicia Keys, resplendent in a red cape and leotard, brought the show to a much-needed simmer with If I Ain’t Got You and overpowered Usher on My Boo. Jermaine Dupri hyped up a kneecapped version of Confession Part II (to be fair, anything less than the whole song would disappoint). HER slayed on electric guitar for Bad Girl and U Got It Bad. Will.i.am provided the backbone for OMG, while everyone else was on wheels.
Before the show, Usher promised two things: to take off his shirt and to involve roller skates. The former, to Burn, was titillating, giddy, fun; the latter, to OMG, was at turns thrilling (backup dancers skating into splits, sick) and stressful (Usher seemed one half-glide from disaster). The wheel-slicked choreography with a noticeably off-balance star, cut with an in-crowd Lil Jon singing Turn Down for What into a shaky cam, made me nostalgic for Rihanna’s relaxed yet commanding take last year, her disinterest in choreography cooling the show’s usually blisteringly ferocious pace.
And yet there’s strength in numbers – the full-on roster of songs, the dancers, the collaborators, the nostalgia, the hype, the skills. The show ended with a triumphant run-through of radio super-smash Yeah! with Lil Jon and Ludacris, decked out in black-and-blue gladiatorial gear, Usher in a sparkly ab-padded suit, as if prepping for a final legacy battle. All together, as if the Avengers of mid-2000s dance party ubiquity (complete with a family-friendly, still bumping mix of Lil Jon’s Get Low), the mood was a final exclamation point of charisma. You could see the stage literally bouncing. Victorious, Usher delivered a gleaming smile and put a final melismatic note on the indisputable: we ask to be entertained, and he has, for going on 30 years now, always delivered.