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The lonely throne of Usher, modern R&B's greatest showman

Usher performs at the grand opening for his Las Vegas residency, "My Way," on July 15, 2022, at the Dolby Live amphitheater at the Park MGM Hotel and Casino.
Denise Truscello
Getty Images for Dolby Live at Park MGM
Usher performs at the grand opening for his Las Vegas residency, "My Way," on July 15, 2022, at the Dolby Live amphitheater at the Park MGM Hotel and Casino.

When Prince revealed that he was taking up a Las Vegas residency in 2006, it felt to many like rock's Dionysus abandoning Mount Olympus to try his luck in a garish neon corner of the earthly realm. Sure, he'd sung often of sin, but Sin City seemed worlds away from his pleasure palace: "How could Prince, a pop trailblazer who has in recent years largely abandoned the conventions of the commercial music business, set up shop amid the slot machines and buffets?" Jeff Leeds asked in The New York Times. By that point, Vegas had become what he called "easy-living pseudo-retirement." Since the days of Elvis, the city had struggled to erase its stigma as a tourist trap for bygone musicians; the artist who'd made Vegas residencies a thing in 2003, Celine Dion, was rather successful there, but also patently uncool. "Las Vegas has both validated legend status and marked a star's devolution to cliché," Leeds wrote — in either case, a harbinger of the end.

As it turned out, Prince could never really be stripped of his luster in any venue. Beginning that November, he took the opportunity every Friday and Saturday night to play a stripped-down set, standing out against the overloaded pageantry of other local stage shows. A few months later, he had an opportunity to perform another ceremonial enshrinement — this time, far from the withering aura of the Strip, on national television. In the wake of a very public controversy, the Super Bowl halftime show was quickly becoming a stage not only for headliners, but elder legends seeking rock and roll sainthood (Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones played the two previous shows, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen the two after). In his turn at Super Bowl XLI, Prince was transcendent — and in successfully navigating the split between Vegas sideshow and mythic stadium titan, he seemed to affirm a certain holiness beyond his devotees. Mingling with mortals couldn't suppress his divinity.

Usher, who sang the late icon's parts in a multigenerational Prince tribute at the 2020 Grammys, is headed for a similarly symbolic showcase. Following his own Vegas residency, which ran from summer 2022 through last December, his halftime set at this year's Super Bowl will also launch a new album called Coming Home, his first solo record in more than seven years. Unlike Prince, there's nothing quite otherworldly about Usher: He is an outstanding entertainer, to be sure, but his excellence still feels quantifiable. Perhaps that's why he seems set to prove that he's not yet done. In his return to Vegas a short two months after his final curtain call at the Park MGM, Usher looks poised to reaffirm his stature, and to hold succession at bay a bit longer.

Usher isn't oblivious to his reality. In a preview of his Vegas residency, in 2021, he told Billboard he thinks of himself as "seasoned," not as an "elder statesman." In truth, the seasoning is a key part of his draw: It is in his practiced yet painless routine that we find him today, ever the consummate performer, a megawatt song-and-dance attraction as fit for the Apollo as for Caesars Palace. But as the music world has shifted around him, that same proficiency now makes him an endangered species in his form, seemingly the last in a certain line of R&B ringmasters.

And where other ambitious contemporary pop entertainers — Beyoncé, Kendrick, etc. — tend to build their live experiences around daring new musical turns, it can feel like Usher's music is functionally a time capsule. It's hard to imagine Vegas patrons yearning for the music of 2016's Hard II Love, or his surprising but uneven collaboration with Atlanta producer Zaytoven. One can fairly assume his Super Bowl set list will largely predate the Obama administration, and there has not been the hankering for a new album that still hounds last year's halftime star, Rihanna. Even his spellbinding Tiny Desk concert, from 2022, at once demonstrates his acumen and his margin. At this point, there appears to be a mutual understanding between Usher and his public: Performance is paramount, and can power a seemingly everlasting relevance for a music career mostly set in amber.

To be clear, showmanship was always integrated into Usher's appeal. A 1998 Vibe cover story bore out the truth of his early success: "At 19, Usher Raymond is living, fluid, muscle-flexing proof that you're never too young to be a player." A Washington Post concert review from the same year noted his hold over screaming fans, "sometimes through his singing, but just as often through his sensually charged movements." As Usher would explain, he was a devoted acolyte of Michael Jackson, attempting to replicate his moves as a kid. But, as the Post review observed: "Usher's not in Jackson's league yet as a dancer, though they share some moves. He does seem far more willing to part with his clothing."

The singer knew what he was, that his body was part of his instrument. Even as a teenager, he was in pursuit of a mature, lustful R&B for an emergent hip-hop generation. His self-titled debut was blatantly sex-curious, with songs commissioned by new jack swing luminaries Chucky Thompson, DeVante Swing and Al B. Sure, though his underdeveloped 15-year-old pipes could not fully deliver on their eroticism. By 1997, having grown into his voice and abs, he was in full swing: When My Way dropped, critic Robert Christgau called him "the sweetest nonvirgin a mama could ask [for]." A year later, he appeared on a cover of Jet magazine with Brian McKnight, Joe and Maxwell, the baby face of the bunch. The all-caps headline: "Hot Male Singers Keep Romance Alive."

When you take the full measure of his expertise, it is perhaps best to think of Usher as a genius of effort and execution, of efficiency at scale, which is likely why he seems most comfortable in performance.

Usher records have long struggled to reconcile an insatiable appetite with a yearning for domestic bliss. Many R&B playboys relish both the comfort of coupling and the prospect of playing the field in their songs, but he seems to have both on his mind simultaneously, as he swings between smoldering come-ons and thumping club flirtations. The best music of his career pulls at these tensions: the stuck-in-the-middle angst of "You Make Me Wanna...," its acoustic guitar beaming as he dreams of resettling with his confidant; the out-of-range passive aggression of "U Don't Have to Call," paying back an absentee lover by blowing her off and trolling the club; the elevated pulse of "Climax," assessing a relationship crisis from a champagne room (producer Diplo called it "a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind"); the minx seductions in "Yeah!," its rattling crunk drowning out the soap opera revelation unfolding on the dance floor. There is the sense of monogamy as a field of attraction, able to draw a person into a warm embrace or force them out onto cold streets.

In setting the stage for scenes from his own romantic misadventures, Usher has often gravitated toward melodrama. The most prominent albums of his career blurred the lines between memoir and fantasy: There's the jilted 8701, inspired by Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway, pulling directly from the heartache of his relationships; the slow-burning Confessions, written around the dissolution of his romance with TLC's Chilli, who called the album a PR stunt; and the uninspired Raymond v. Raymond, which (vaguely) referenced his divorce from Tameka Foster. Playing the part has been as key to the success (and failure) of his records as anything, and feeding salacious narratives builds upon the pretense of his lyrics.

Just look at last year's "Boyfriend," a song created in direct reference to conversation surrounding a slow dance he performed with actor Keke Palmer at his residency, her then-partner's reaction and the internet's reaction to that reaction. Released only a few weeks after, "Boyfriend" featured Palmer in the song art and video, playing into the perception of Usher as the girlfriend-stealing R&B heartthrob: "Somebody said that your boyfriend's lookin' for me / Oh, that's cool, that's cool / Well, he should know I'm pretty easy to find / Just look for me wherever he sees you," he croons confidently. But the song, despite the chatter surrounding it, didn't quite land — because the music couldn't sell the illusion. It's a part he has played well before, but playing the part isn't enough when the music itself is mere set dressing for the kayfabe of an emotional exhibitionist; a daydream can take you only so far without imagination.

In The Village Voice, the writer Rich Juzwiak once referred to Usher as "a paragon of competence," which feels representative of the way his uber-professionalism is undersold by his creative vision. Unlike D'Angelo (tortured progressive genius), or Maxwell (ageless, luxurious wonder), or Raphael Saadiq (soul man turned renaissance man), who all have spent their later years pushing the boundaries of R&B songcraft, Usher's role has been to dutifully follow the paths laid for him by his predecessors — out onto the biggest stages possible, and into the pop realm. (When Michael Jackson died in 2009, Usher told Time magazine, "This man, he meant so much to me as an entertainer; as an individual, he taught me so much, even though he didn't know it. Michael Jackson was the first African American to sing to a crossover audience," hinting at his own artistic path.)

When you take the full measure of his expertise, it is perhaps best to think of him as a genius of effort and execution, of efficiency at scale, which is likely why he seems most comfortable in performance, especially in service to those predecessors. "There's two highlights that I will always remember in my career," he told MTV in 2009: "Sharing the stage with James Brown at the Grammys, where he named me 'the Godson of Soul,' and sharing the stage with Michael Jackson in New York City." Usher does bear that responsibility admirably, though he has not achieved the same omnipresence by acting in deference to those monuments. He instead occupies an unusual middle ground: not quite as experimental as the tinkers, not quite as bright as the supernovas — and thus, a hard act to follow.

There are no heirs apparent to the throne of the R&B king, even if Usher has had his day and needs a successor. The women in R&B are as accomplished as ever, as artists and entertainers — take SZA, Janelle Monáe, Jazmine Sullivan, Victoria Monét and Jorja Smith as just a few examples. The men have less clarity: I fear guys like Brent Faiyaz and Bryson Tiller come off too listless and detached, guys like Giveon and Khalid too earnest. None are especially dynamic. None feel transcendent. None can match Usher for hits or for classics or for oomph. Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber are pop stars cosplaying R&B (though the former is a distinguished, if lesser, performer), and have no real claim. The ship has sailed for Chris Brown. The Weeknd is trying — definitely successful enough, and maybe even talented enough, but look no further than his own Super Bowl halftime show to really get a sense of the distance between him and Usher. He isn't the same gravitational force. Assessing the field, it's much easier to understand why such a powerhouse has such staying power.

Even the most devoted in the Usher faithful would have a hard time arguing that he has made a truly noteworthy album since his signature trio — My Way into 8701 into Confessions is a hell of a run — but perhaps he has evolved beyond all that. It's fitting that the album he's releasing now feels peripheral to the spectacle of his Super Bowl appearance; the performance itself really is the thing. Maybe the millions of eyeballs will prompt a sales resurgence, and maybe the hype will incite some kind of dramatic return to form. But it seems, as we move closer and closer toward a music sphere — a world, honestly — that prioritizes attention at any cost, that there may be no real reason for Usher's new music to be the focus of his artistry, even as he pursues renewal as a tier-one superstar. Maybe Usher's true legacy is his ability to remind us, again and again, that he is always on, ready to appear, twirling and gyrating and gliding, warbling and wooing and serenading, for as long as his stamina will allow.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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