The Raw Talent in Usher’s Halftime Show

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Written By Pinang Driod

Designing a Super Bowl halftime performance is, in many ways, an exercise in sacrificial concision: Artists must whittle decades of songs into a crowd-friendly, roughly 13-minute reprieve from athletics and multimillion-dollar commercials. It’s no wonder that many sets end up feeling like lackluster interruptions of the main events.

But during tonight’s Super Bowl LVIII halftime show, the veteran R&B singer Usher breathed life into the annual musical diversion. Just a mile away from the Park MGM Las Vegas, where he spent much of the past two years commanding his second massively successful residency, Usher took over Allegiant Stadium with all the panache of both Sin City and his beloved Atlanta. He kicked off the show from a mirrored throne—lest there be any questions about the 45-year-old’s standing in R&B and pop—decked out in a dazzling monochromatic white and silver outfit. Yet despite the theatricality, Usher’s performance underscored the value of his raw artistry. It was a rollicking, sequin-studded, sexed-up celebration of a singular showman.

The opener set the tone for the night. “Caught Up,” the fifth and final single from his 2004 album, Confessions, is the energetic lament of a newly reformed lothario and the kind of Usher track that speaks to his core fan base: longtime R&B obsessives, who have followed him since before his mid-2010s flirtations with EDM. Along with 8701’s playboy anthem “U Don’t Have to Call,” and the Confessions ballad “Superstar,” Usher signaled a clear strategic choice. This halftime show wasn’t going to be a soulless tasting menu for the masses. Instead, Usher made his Super Bowl performance feel dedicated to his loyal fans—which is to say, the predominantly Black listeners who have followed his career at least since 1997’s “Nice & Slow.”

The show did incorporate a few hits that have appealed to fans across many different demographics, including the will.i.am-assisted Auto-Tune bop “OMG.” But overall, Usher’s show was notably light on his high-octane collaborations with the likes of Pitbull, Skrillex, and David Guetta. Nor did he sneak in any tracks from his new album, Coming Home, which was just released on Friday. Dispensing with certain crowd-pleasers and avoiding new material freed Usher up to do what he does best: perform, with the kind of zeal and precision that audiences rarely see on such a massive stage. Throughout the show, he proved again and again that his vocals are in remarkable form—even though he did much of his singing while dancing, roller-skating, or both. Whether backed by a full marching band or surrounded by a feather-clad, Cirque du Soleil–esque sea of dancers, he held his own.

One of the thrills of Usher’s halftime show was the space he carved out for his fellow musicians—yet another reminder of his strenuous attention to his craft. In the space of 15 minutes, he brought out several artists who helped create some of his greatest 2000s and 1990s hits: Alicia Keys eased into their saccharine duet, “My Boo,” by playing the piano and singing part of her own song, “If I Ain’t Got You,” which Usher briefly joined with a wide smile across his face. Jermaine Dupri, the super-producer who was one of the main Confessions architects, made a brief cameo too. Later, an invigorating guitar riff from H.E.R. gave way to the crunk symphony of “Yeah!,” Usher’s indelible collaboration with Lil Jon and Ludacris. Flanked by skaters and pole dancers, the rappers channeled the energy of their decades-younger selves—and of Atlanta, the city that all four men call home.

And in an era when many male musicians seem averse to invoking the unabashed romance and sensuality of their soul forerunners, there was also something delightful about watching Usher lean into the obvious: He takes being a sex symbol very seriously. The moments-long gyrations and brief six-pack reveal included in a generally tasteful performance nodded to his awareness that showmanship doesn’t begin and end with vocals. Sometimes, artists can be enthralling athletes in their own right.

Hannah Giorgis is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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