A few minutes into Usher’s dynamic and crafty halftime show in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday night at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas came a moment of unusual, almost startling calm.
Alicia Keys had just shown up, wearing a sequined red jumpsuit and matching encrusted dress, and quite gratuitously spoofed the opening note of her hit piano ballad “If I Ain’t Got You.”
She recovered, and as she neared the end of the chorus, Usher could be heard singing in quiet harmony as the camera panned back to focus on the two at opposite ends of Keys’ piano. Usher took the final line of the chorus – alone, soft and confident, almost whispered – before Keys returned to deliver the final note.
Allegiant Stadium holds about 65,000 people, but at that time there were only two. It was one of the quietest sequences in halftime history, a remarkable testament to the gifts of Usher, a performer with precise detail best enjoyed with rapt attention.
Most of the rest of the performance — which included more than a dozen songs — was larger in scale, designed to fill a football field: a small-scale, granularly gestured showcase gave way to an explosive party. But what made this set so good was making it clear that Usher’s commitment to detail and his ability for greatness fire in the same cauldron. He can control the stage when it’s full to the brim and he can do it alone.
Thirty years into his career, the 45-year-old Usher is a showman with his voice, but also – and perhaps even more so – with his body and his feet. From the beginning, the television show was careful not to waste any of his movements, the camera lingering on him as he performed careful footwork and body bending exercises. What was particularly impressive was the fact that he performed many of these moves on grass, particularly in the first section – “Caught Up”, “U Don’t Have to Call” -.
He opened with dance-oriented hits with indelible opening lines, took a brief spoken interlude to thank God and his mother, then offered a splash of the ballad “Superstar” before loudly accompanied by a brass band on “Love in This Club.” .” Keys’ subsequent set piece ended with the two singers tenderly singing “My Boo.”
Then the transition to party mode began. Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri prepped the audience a bit before Usher delivered “Confessions Part II,” one of the most joyous songs about sexual infidelity in pop history. After a brief detour through “Nice & Slow” (with a brief mention of the song’s recent afterlife as a meme) and the cheeky, haunting “Burn,” he moved on to “U Got It Bad,” in which he performed an extended dance routine with a comfortable microphone stand.
Up until this point, Usher had been in a steady procession of Dishabille—a white fur coat giving way to a cropped white blazer and a heavily sequined sleeveless T-shirt. Here, he completed his trip by stripping down to a tank top and then wearing just his signature U diamond pendant above his waist. (To be fair, the humorous warning before the show said the appearance could cause “possible relationship problems.”)
This was the highlight of the show: his strongest singing with his most detailed dancing. It was a small-stage Usher — not unlike the one who spent much of last year performing a residency at the Park MGM Hotel and Casino, just 10 minutes away — giving an incredibly large presentation.
From then on it was all casual, unburdened fun. SHE played powerful guitar and switched to the silky funk of “Bad Girl.” Soon the stage was full of dancers on ice skates – a tribute to Atlanta’s black roller rink culture. Usher himself, now wearing a sparkly black and blue motorcycle costume, was also on skates, and nimbly at that.
A party in Atlanta had begun. He made a small part of “OMG,” a collaboration with Will.i.am that served primarily to highlight the similarities between pop EDM and the Atlanta crunk music that preceded it by nearly a decade. Lil Jon came on for a few motivational shouts and then transitioned into “Yeah!” This 2004 collaboration took some of hip-hop’s harshest textures and turned them into unavoidable pop. Ludacris was there too and managed to get in some of his roughest lyrics on this completely sanitized stage.
This finale was a halftime show goldmine: a 20-year-old hit that still sounds like it came from the future, a roaring party of hundreds, a connection between black college marching bands and the hip-hop and R&B they often interpret the field. Everyone on stage did the A-Town stomp, the muscle, the thunderclap, the rockaway. “I brought the world to A,” Usher chanted, reminding everyone that in his hands, the global and the local are one and the same.