Pop Culture

Usher Did the Most but Still Left You Wanting More


There was before the roller skates, and there was after. Before the roller skates: great. Lovely. Awesome. Sure. Tremendous energy. A distinctly Las Vegas sort of energy, yes: chaotic to the point of overwhelming, the medley action rapid-fire to the point of frantic, the rowdy troupe of backup dancers and carnival barkers and extra-Vegasy peacock ladies and whatnot rumbling down the field like every Cirque du Soleil show in history climaxing simultaneously. The medley action was strong, my friends, with some monster hits getting only, like, 15 seconds to shine. It was, y’know, a lot, even before you got to Alicia Keys, even before he ripped his shirt off, even before he did “Confessions Part II.” (Though, honestly, we could’ve used 20 more seconds—or 45 more minutes—of “Confessions Part II.”) Also, man, he didn’t even do “Climax,” and even if he’d done “Climax,” he still might not have challenged Prince for all-time Super Bowl halftime show supremacy. But still, an A-plus for effort at least, great energy, lovely, sure. And then Usher put on roller skates and roller-skated around. He put his shirt back on and in fact changed into a whole extra-snazzy blue-and-black outfit that one of my esteemed colleagues has identified as “the Bibleman fit” just to roller-skate around obscenely. Oh, wow.

Phenomenal. Aren’t roller skates super hard to put on and take back off? (Yes.) Did Usher have any difficulty with any of that? (No.) Was Prince any good on skates? (Yes.) OK, but did Prince ever skate around while playing the “Purple Rain” solo? (Not to my knowledge, but don’t count it out.) And that’s how Usher won the Super Bowl: by doing “OMG” whilst gliding around with the quiet grace of Barbie and the flamboyant audacity of Ken. Sometimes it’s the little things. More often, it’s the much, much bigger things.

But even B.R.S. (Before Roller Skates), what a joy to see Usher, truly. One of the most dazzling smiles, most delicately thunderous voices, and most gargantuan catalogs of monster hits in the business. (I’m still mad he didn’t do “Climax.” I knew he wouldn’t, but somehow that makes me only madder.) And most importantly, oh, wow, the dancing, the sheer ecstatic relentlessness of this guy’s feet/calves/knees, a perpetual barrage of gyrations ranging from the mildly suggestive to the blessedly obscene. Usher has been the consummate five-tool showman since 1994, the perfect Vegas pop star long before Vegas’s Pop Star Residency Era, the platonic ideal of a Super Bowl halftime show long before the Super Bowl was anywhere near open-minded enough to realize it. And clearly he intended to make up for years, if not decades, of lost time Sunday night, radiant in all white (with one white, spangly glove) as he opened with the ebullient clamor of “Caught Up,” which ran straight into “U Don’t Have to Call,” which ran straight into “Superstar,” which ran straight into “Love in This Club,” bolstered by a raucous marching band. All great songs, all must-plays in this situation. But the challenge was he had 20 more must-plays, and at this pace, Usher clearly intended to hit all of them even if he had to start playing three or four simultaneously.

And then Alicia Keys, resplendent in a spangly, red Dolce & Gabbana bodysuit at a blood-red piano, got him to calm down. She has that effect on people. Even if “My Boo” doesn’t make your personal top-20 Usher list, it was the slightly chill duet, the sumptuously deep breath, the supremely heartwarming onstage bear hug this show needed. (Unless you happen to be married to Alicia Keys.) It is almost unfair that Usher (with a quick intro from Jermaine Dupri) could pivot from there directly into the NC-17 eroticism of “Confessions Part II,” “Nice & Slow,” “Burn,” and “U Got It Bad” (featuring H.E.R. on the Prince-adjacent guitar solo)—all killers, none getting quite the airtime they needed for maximum impact, but by then, Usher was shirtless, and that’s pretty much as much maximum impact as America can handle, and then, as aforementioned, the roller skates.

The skates kicked off the climactic quasi-EDM portion of our evening. (Sorry to keep using the word climactic, but I am still mad.) For those who prefer Usher in maximum R&B megastar mode, massive crossover Usher hits like “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” (which he didn’t play tonight) and “OMG” (which he did play, alongside will.i.am, whilst gliding around on roller skates) are somewhat polarizing, tremendously effective crossover moves from somebody who’d already proved he didn’t need to cross over at all. But from the moment Lil Jon materialized in the midst of the crowd braying “Turn Down for What,” we were guaranteed to peak with the very predictable but absolutely necessary majesty of “Yeah!,” with Ludacris resplendent, Lil Jon dropping just a tantalizing bit of “Get Low,” and Usher utterly triumphant.

In a perfect world, we could split this into three separate Usher Super Bowl triumphs: one (maybe in 2005) devoted entirely to his blockbuster Confessions era, one in the early 2010s to let the EDM jams breathe, and one where he just played “Climax” for 20 (or 45) minutes. Not every Super Bowl halftime show, even the pretty great ones, leaves you wanting more, leaves you wanting sequels, prequels, franchises, extended universes. Usher over-delivered, because that’s what Usher does. That’s why he was there. That’s why he should’ve been there 15 years ago. It is a testament to his greatness if you’re inclined to quibble with the set list or the time he devoted to your personal favorite. You were hoping he’d wind up shirtless, and he did; you didn’t dare to hope he’d bust out the roller skates, and he did that, too. I’m guessing you didn’t get everything you wanted, but you got what you needed. It’s not his fault that too much of him is still not enough.





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