Rediscovering Usher before his Super Bowl halftime show

Like any good concert-goer I prepare beforehand, listening through an artist’s back catalog so I can get into the music during the show. The concert in this case is Usher’s Super Bowl halftime show and, while I will not be a paid on-field audience member or part of the stadium crowd more widely, I, like millions of others, will be watching live remotely, both as an NFL nerd and a music fan. After sharing some of my Usher findings, I will answer the question of whether or not Usher was a good pick for the show and then ponder Usher’s potential setlist.

This concert prep is not my first foray into Usher. Though still in elementary school, there were three Usher tracks that I was familiar with at his peak culture reference: “Yeah! (feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris,” “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love (feat. Pitbull)” and “OMG.” On “Yeah!,” I think Lil Jon’s overbearing performance really just does not have any chemistry with Usher’s soft melodic singing. I was never into it as a kid. In regard to “DJ’s got Us Fallin’ in Love,” I will admit that the Minecraft parody version titled “Revenge” was the version that I was rocking with much more in 2010 (not that it is much better, though its lyrics are certainly more memorable). It has similar club aspirations as “Yeah!” “OMG” is maybe the most melodically unique of the three but is just as one dimensional lyrically. It is perhaps a shame that Usher’s two biggest hits (“Yeah!” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love”) were synth-heavy crunk cuts that have not aged particularly well. As I would soon find out, Usher has much more complexity and timelessness than his hits might suggest. 

One of the first pieces of Usher media that reignited my interest in him was his 2022 performance for the NPR Tiny Desk Concert video series, showcasing his immense vocal talent and general swagger. I recommend you watch this performance either at the start of your Usher rediscovery or the night before the Super Bowl. If you are unfamiliar with the Tiny Desk concert series, musicians from a pretty wide spectrum play short concerts with live vocals and backing in a relatively cramped corner of the NPR Washington D.C. office. In my experience, Tiny Desk concerts aptly showcase why artists were signed in the first place, as the concerts have a certain rawness akin to auditions. If you have ever wondered about the ubiquity of a musician like Anderson .Paak in hip-hop and R&B, look no further than his Tiny Desk performance, which showcases his virtuosic ability to rap and sing over his own laser sharp drumming. His concert video has been viewed over 100 million times, triple any of his solo music videos. 

Usher’s own Tiny Desk video sits at a respectable 21 million views. Backed by an eight-piece band, Usher’s vocals glide over his setlist of purely R&B cuts, though one moment of his vocal talent in the Tiny Desk concert stands out in particular. Before the start of “Superstar,” Usher explains that one of his background singers, Eric Bellinger, created an internet challenge where people attempt to do the opening vocal run in Usher’s track, “Superstar.” Usher challenges Bellinger to do the vocal run live and he accepts.    

Bellinger, a very talented and successful vocalist in his own right, powers through the complex falsetto run, effectively replicating Usher’s performance on the original recording. Right after, Usher then repeats back the run effortlessly with incredible crispness and control. I am no expert on vocals, but something was clear: At 45, Usher out-sang a fellow R&B singer in their prime. 

Outside of this brilliant Tiny Desk performance, Usher’s 2004 album “Confessions”—his most commercially successful album—was another great discovery in my concert prep. While it opens with a regrettable crunk cut “Yeah!” the rest of the album is full of great slow jams with a few uptempo tracks mixed in. Some of the highlights include the vulnerable “Confessions Part II” where Usher confesses to accidentally impregnating women over a satisfyingly jittery beat. There’s also the bouncy track, “That’s What It’s Made For” about condom usage (there’s a theme there) and “Seduction” which features beautifully layered harmonies. Usher sold over 10 million copies of “Confessions,” a feat only 94 albums have achieved. I was really surprised to find out the album was this successful, although, to be honest I am surprised by a lot of diamond platinum albums from the ’90s and 2000s that do not necessarily reflect sustained cultural relevance (Hootie and the Blowfish, MC Hammer, No Doubt, Kid Rock). Usher’s album, though having faced a similar fate, certainly is one that holds up sonically. 

In Usher’s general discography, there are a lot of great hits, such as the atmospheric “U Got it Bad,” the sexy “You Make Me Wanna” and the sensual “Nice & Slow.” In my opinion, the vast majority of Usher’s best tracks come from “Confessions,” “My Way” or “8701,” the latter two being very solid albums as well.

So, ultimately, is Usher the right pick for the Super Bowl? Well…yeah. I think he is a good pick. He is still a really talented vocalist, and he had a pretty high creative and commercial peak in his career. While it might have been better to see them pick a current popular artist, the Super Bowl tends to split years between legacy acts and current artists, and they could honestly do a lot worse in either category than Usher. 

The Super Bowl halftime show has been a pretty weird event over its 60-year existence, with popular-musician-centric performances having really only been the norm for the past 20 years. There have been some really strange show themes like the time that they had 88 grand pianos on the field in 1988 or when it was Indiana Jones-themed in 1995 (I recommend watching both on YouTube; they are absolute trips). Suddenly Usher does not seem like a strange pick at all. 

Lastly, having become a semi-knowledgeable Usher appreciator, I thought that I would give a speculative take on Usher’s potential Super Bowl setlist. If you are really interested in Usher setlist predictions, there are prop bets, per the Cincinnati Enquirer, but only for the people of Canada.

The setlist I want: 

“Superstar” 

“Confessions Part II”

“Pony” by Ginuwine

“You Make Me Wanna…”

“Throwback (feat. Jadakiss)”

“U Don’t Have to Call”

Features: Ginuwine, Jadakiss

The Ginuwine track is kind of a stretch, but I think it would switch up the vibe and go really hard. Just saying Usher… I hope you make it happen.

The setlist we will probably get:
“Yeah! (feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris)” 

“My Boo (feat. Alicia Keys)”

“DJ’s Got Us Fallin’ In Love (feat. Pitbull)”

“Confessions Part II” 

“Superstar”

“Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)”

Features: Lil Jon, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, Pitbull

This setlist maximizes potential features. While Usher’s performance will likely also maximize crunk cuts, at least “OMG” probably will not happen because he performed it during the hot mess that was the Black Eyed Peas halftime show, where he jumped from a platform into a split. It is actually a really good performance from Usher. 

I hope this inspires you to listen to some Usher jams. If you were like me and had a sour or forgettable experience with Usher in elementary school, maybe this will help you rethink a really talented and dynamic artist. 

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