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Usher, more spectacle than music in a Super Bowl halftime show that paid tribute to Black music: ‘Mama, we made it’

In 13 minutes, the singer sang, danced, skated and stripped in a performance that featured Alicia Keys, Lil Jon, H.E.R. and will.i.am. He also competed for the media’s attention with Taylor Swift, in the stands, and Beyoncé, who announced an album

Usher medio tiempo Super Bowl 2024
Usher, during his Super Bowl halftime performance at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 11, 2024.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

On very, very few betting lists of the, say, 100 most important, powerful, most-listened-to American artists of recent times who might be at this year’s Super Bowl, did Usher’s name ring out. When his performance was announced last September, many dusted off CDs from the 2000s to reminisce about the 45-year-old’s music. He, who has been in the business for 30 years, is no fool: no one was expecting him and, precisely for that reason, he had a lot to give. Expectations, as we all know, are the enemy of fun. Perhaps after Rihanna, Lady Gaga, The Weeknd, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, few trusted in the show Usher could put on. They were wrong. He delivered, and his halftime performance was intense, agile, loaded with guests and very visual. Perfect for his 13 minutes on stage. As he said himself right out of the gate, “They said I wouldn’t be here today, but I am. Hey, mama, we made it.”

Usher began singing surrounded by backup singers, dancers and acrobats directly on the field, before moving to a platform or stage. From the get-go, he made it clear that he came to put on a show (the NFL does not pay halftime show artists, but pays for all the expenses). However, the sound was not so perfect at the beginning, until he got on stage and grabbed a handheld microphone. There he was joined by his first guest: Alicia Keys. In front of a huge red piano, she started her I Ain’t Got You and then moved on to My boo, her song with Usher.

On stage, Usher sang, danced, and even took off his shirt and danced bare-chested. Before disappearing for a few seconds, he left H.E.R. playing guitar, solo. Then he came back out, in a new outfit, and he didn’t just dance anymore: he skated. Skating is not only a hobby, but one of his businesses; he has several rinks in the United States. In some interviews he has said that Gene Kelly inspires him to do it, and that dancing and skating at the same time is very complex, technically and artistically. This Sunday, though, he made it look effortless.

Usher had already said that Black musical culture would be very present in his show and so it was. The singer raised in Chattanooga (Tennessee) by his mother, Jonetta Patton, who managed his career for years, has always placed value on his community; in fact, he was one of the artists who actively advocated for June 19 (Juneteenth) to become a national holiday, as was achieved a couple of years ago. Hence, he brought out some of the most recognized figures of Black music, especially from the 2000s.

In addition to Keys and H.E.R., he also brought on stage Jermaine Dupri, one of the most important producers of the early 2000s, who bet on Usher for his first and most famous album, Confessions (released in 2004 and the only one of his career that has been nominated for Grammys, eight in total). Soon after came will.i.am, singer of The Black Eyed Peas (the two already sang together in a Super Bowl, 13 years ago, when Usher was one of the band’s guests at the 2011 intermission in Texas to perform OMG). Lil Jon and Ludacris, with whom he recorded what is probably his biggest hit, Yeah! (from 2004, the only one of his songs that exceeds one billion plays on Spotify), could, of course, not be missing from the lineup. Nor Pitbull (with whom he sang DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love, in 2010) and his protégé and whom he discovered 15 years ago, Justin Bieber, who danced and sang with him from the stands.

With Lil Jon he also performed a piece of Turn down for what as the audience jumped up and down and danced along. Usher may not be the best remembered or most recognized artist, but it’s undeniable that he has very identifiable songs that get the people moving on the dance floor.

In any case, more than for the music, Usher shone for a show that was full of spectacle. As if it were a carnival, he filled the stadium and the stage not with uniformed and perfect dancers, but with atmosphere, feathers, glitter, a live band… In essence: he brought that light-hearted fun that requires its many hours of rehearsal, yes, but sometimes seems to be forgotten among so many perfectly coordinated and choreographed moments.

Usher, who hadn’t put out an album in six years, released Coming home on Friday. He’s given interviews, press conferences, and there have been ads for him on TV and billboards across the country. For an artist who had his peak of fame more than a decade ago (maybe even two), that’s no small feat.

But everyone’s eyes were not only on the stage. There was a whole other show going on in the stands. The biggest star of the moment, Taylor Swift, was in the stands, fresh off the plane from Japan, watching the game and supporting the Kansas City Chiefs, her partner Travis Kelce’s team. And one of the biggest artists of the century, Beyoncé, was also present, along with her husband Jay-Z and their children. She took the night as the opportunity to launch not only an ad (something very unusual for her) but also, and by surprise, an entire album, the second part of Renaissance, which will arrive on March 29, and released two tracks, Texas Hold Em and 16 Carriages.

If Usher feared oblivion, he can rest easy.

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