Usher: “Godson of Soul” ticks off Super Bowl from every musician's bucket list with a phenomenal performance

Alicia Keys and Usher perform during the Super Bowl halftime show on February 11, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS

How do you squeeze 30 years of hit songs into 12 minutes? Such was the size of the challenge facing US R&B star Usher while curating his setlist for the 58th Super Bowl Halftime performance in Las Vegas last Sunday, February 11.

What Usher described as being in “the bucket list for every musician” provided the perfect backdrop to celebrate a prolific music career. It was Usher’s mentor Michael Jackson who in 1993 transformed the Super Bowl halftime show from a dreary affair with marching bands and drills into a pop music phenomenon when he performed Heal the World accompanied by 3,500 children.

Usher’s show is complete with cameos from Alicia Keys, Jermaine Dupri, Lil Jon, Ludacris, and Will I am run through his vast catalogue of hit songs delivered with dazzling choreography and elaborate showmanship. Highlights of the 14 song-setlist included Caught Up, U Don’t Have to Call, Superstar, Love in this Club duet and a medley of If I Ain’t Got You and My Boo with Alicia Keys.

The music industry is a tough business where even the biggest stars struggle to sustain a career at the very top for more than a decade. Usher’s influence has transcended generations, evolving from the smooth R&B of the 90s and early 2000s to a hard-edged sound influenced by electronic dance music.

The current success of Afrobeats has not escaped his attention and his new album Coming Home which was released just two days before his Super Bowl show, contains collaborations with Nigerian superstar Burna Boy and Pheelz.

In 1994, the world was introduced to a teenage artist whose slides, spins and glides led critics to call him the “best dancer in pop since Michael Jackson”. That young boy is today a 45-year-old globally renowned icon with a string of hit albums, and TV/movie acting roles to his name.

Born in Dallas, Texas, on October 17, 1978, Usher Raymond IV joined a local church youth choir at the age of nine and his family later moved to Atlanta seeking more opportunities for the prodigy.

In 1991 when he was 13, Usher appeared on the US talent show Star Search singing the Boyz II Men hit End of the Road, a performance which earned him a recording deal with LaFace Records, which at the time was home to superstar acts like Toni Braxton and TLC.

His first major single was Call Me Mack from the soundtrack of the film Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. In 1994 the 15-year old’s self-titled debut album achieved moderate chart success and it was evident that more work was required to shape the young man’s career.

Usher’s second album My Way, in 1997, was the start of a long-running creative partnership with the producer Jermaine Dupri which yielded the classic You Make Me Wanna and his first US No.1 single Nice & Slow, a trendsetter in hip hop influenced R&B ballads that dominated that era.

Meanwhile, Usher’s acting career also flourished when he was cast in the 1990s sitcom Moesha as singer-actress Brandy’s boyfriend and in the popular soap The Bold and the Beautiful. He made his big screen debut in the 1998 sci-fi horror film The Faculty, followed by the 1999 comedy She’s All That, his first leading role in Light It Up, and Texas Rangers in 2001.

The album 8701 arrived in 2001 propelled by the hit singles U Got It Bad and U Remind Me, winning Usher his first two Grammy Awards. Confessions, his fourth album, released in 2004, led by the single Yeah featuring rappers Lil Jon and Ludacris, a trailblazer in the fusion of crunk, a dance-oriented sub-genre of hip-hop and R&B.

The album also featured the singles Burn, Caught Up and the duet My Boo with Alicia Keys becoming the biggest seller of the decade in the US (10 million copies stateside, and 20 million worldwide).

More success was to follow for Usher with Here I Stand in 2008, led by the US No 1 single Love in This Club with Young Jeezy. US music industry publication Billboard magazine listed him as second, only to Eminem, as the most successful artist of the 2000s.

His sixth album Raymond vs. Raymond (2010) was followed later that year by the EP Versus which produced the hit single DJ Got Us Falling in Love with Pitbull. Looking 4 Myself (2012), and Hard II Love (2016) led to a long hiatus before Coming Home his ninth album, released just days before the Super Bowl show. Seated among the crowd watching Usher’s performance was his famous protégé, Justin Bieber, whose career he helped launch in the early 2000s.

The “Godfather of Soul” James Brown anointed Usher as the “Godson of Soul” in 2005 and few would argue that he has not lived up to the faith entrusted upon him.

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