Usher’s Super Bowl LVIII halftime performance is one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory. The eight-time Grammy winner has a repertoire that dates back to the early 1990s and continues today – plus he’s a consummate showman who remains one of music’s greatest live performers. There’s no doubt about it: this is going to be one show.
Furthermore, this Super Bowl performance is the proverbial conclusion to what has been a remarkable recent resurgence for Usher, a towering figure in R&B who transcends eras and generations. And while fans and bookmakers alike debate which hits he manages to cram into his fifteen-minute set, the real question is: how did Usher get to this moment – and what took so long to get here?
It’s easy to forget, but Usher Raymond IV was only 14 years old when he debuted with “Just Call Me a Mack,” a single that made some waves but didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it hit the market released. Poetic justice soundtrack in 1993. He had moved from Tennessee to Atlanta with his family to pursue a music career, but once he secured a recording contract he was transferred to New York City, where he recorded an album produced by Sean’ Diddy’ Combs. and growing up way too fast. Still, his self-titled debut was a better-than-advertised collection of mid-’90s hip-hop soul. And while it made some people uncomfortable with the disarming maturity of a teenager, it showed the undeniable star power he had even in the earliest stages of his career.
And yet, Guard received a lukewarm reception when it landed right at the height of a ’90s boom in platinum-selling high-school-aged R&B singers. Tevin Campbell, the teen idol of the era, debuted at the start of the decade, while fellow newcomers Brandy and Aaliyah emerged in 1994 with star-making hit singles. Usher wasn’t so lucky; his album debuted at number 167 on the Billboard 200 chart. But what does it matter it didn’t What happened for Usher during the performance of his first album only served as the first act for what would become a definitive career.
Make no mistake: Usher has become the defining star of that era of R&B stardom. He was part of the first generation to come of age in the wake of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson; part of the age group that grew up with black global pop stars heralding a new world order in which black singers wrested the spotlight from white boys with guitars. Rock bands were certainly still popular, but their position as standard bearers of industry success would soon begin to decline with the rise of Michael and Whitney. And even though those ’80s icons initiated that paradigm shift, it would be Usher and his contemporaries who took full advantage of the doors opened to them.
After that disappointing debut, Usher’s commercial stint from 1997 to 2006 made him one of the most important artists of his generation. Albums like My way, 8701, And Confessions became a cornerstone of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Usher became a fixture on MTV’s Total request live and BETs 106 & Parkingdeftly maneuvering around perceived rivals like Ginuwine and Justin Timberlake to create a track that was all his own.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, R&B fans began to wonder where the genre’s mainstream was headed. EDM, trap-influenced Autotune crooning and moody ‘alternative’ sounds seemed to be the standard, and Usher genre jumped as times changed and tastes changed. He deftly delivered contemporary hits like “OMG” and “Climax,” proving he was more than adept at adapting even when most of his ’90s peers began touring their biggest hits or turning their hand to reality tried TV fame. His stint hosting The voice Nevertheless, Usher was able to remain vital as a musician, even as a new generation came to the fore.
Usher has maintained an intergenerational appeal that eludes even the greatest artists in virtually any era. Other than perhaps Mary J. Blige, there aren’t many of his contemporaries who can say they have the kind of range he does; able to fill stadiums in the 2020s, look as natural on NPR as they do in Las Vegas, and drop new music that buzzes with ingenuity. Sometimes, when an artist has a consistent presence in pop culture, it’s easy to dismiss the work ethic and talent required to maintain that position. Usher is now an accomplished artist, but he still seems to work harder than almost everyone.
And he has done so with the kind of critical eye you would expect from a celebrity who has been in the spotlight for thirty years. For much of the 2000s, his personal life seemed intertwined with his music; his highly publicized breakup with TLC’s Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas was the ghost that haunted the 2004 blockbuster Confessionsand his divorce from Tameka Foster in 2009 provided the backdrop for the following year Raymond vs. Raymond. Even during subsequent career lulls and personal storms – including the tragic death of his stepson in 2012 and another divorce from his second wife, Grace Miguel – he has been able to maintain his status. That’s really the measure of longevity; not that you have a flawless career, but that you can weather the valleys between different peaks.
His 2023 Vegas residency (and an extremely well-received Tiny Desk Concert in 2022) reminded anyone who might have forgotten that he’s still got the goods. And this week he cleverly released his ninth studio album, Coming home, ahead of his biggest performance yet, a performance he says will be as much a tribute to the greats of the past as it is a celebration of his own career.
That seems all too fitting. Usher is a product of the ’90s, influenced by the Motown, Philly soul, funk, dance and new jack swing that came before him, and he remains a torchbearer of that beloved era. In the same way that the Motown tradition lived on through Michael Jackson, who then pushed it into the MTV generation, or the way that funk’s legacy was carried by Prince as he expanded the genre’s musical vocabulary, Usher is not just a emissary for ’90s R&B – he shifts its spirit into something totally contemporary. His entire career connects the lineage from which he emerged with the landscape he continues to influence to this day.
Why would his Super Bowl show be any different?