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News / Life / Entertainment

Usher brings romance to the biggest stage in America: The Super Bowl

By Marissa Evans, Los Angeles Times
Published: February 11, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
Usher speaks during a news conference ahead of the Super Bowl 58 NFL football game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Las Vegas. Usher will perform during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Usher speaks during a news conference ahead of the Super Bowl 58 NFL football game Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Las Vegas. Usher will perform during the Super Bowl halftime show. (AP Photo/John Locher) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — You can see galaxies in Usher Raymond IV’s eyes.

They twinkle as he speaks, no matter how little lighting there is in a room. His deep gaze, soft and curious, makes you wonder what he sees in your humanity, whether it’s beauty, intelligence, kindness, warmth or something else. You have to consider when is the last time someone has looked into your eyes with such attentiveness. You could fall into his dimples when he smiles. His voice is rich and velvety. His hugs are warm. He is a deep sigh of dreaminess personified.

It comes naturally to a man who has made romance part of his legacy for three decades and done soul searching on how he thinks about love. He’s intentional in so many things he does, including lighting a candle in the home theater of a lavish Beverly Hills home “for the vibe” before opening up about who he is as a human and an artist.

“I wanted you to feel cool and feel the energy,” Usher said. “Maybe it was something about that candle that was lit that just changed the vibe in the room, the tone that I speak to you in, looking you in your eyes when I actually talk to you, that probably makes you feel a little bit more safe and like we’re really connected in this moment.”

Recently, the R&B icon’s run of sold-out Vegas residencies, a new album and headlining the Super Bowl halftime show have sparked renewed admiration from veteran and young fans alike. On Tuesday, the singer announced the “Usher: Past, Present, Future” tour, a 24-city trek launching in August. Usher’s moment in the spotlight in the heart of America’s biggest game will be a legacy-defining moment not only for himself but for romance and R&B.

In the years since Usher started his career in the early 1990s, our ideas of intimacy have evolved dramatically. Women are reconsidering the merits of singledom and men are facing a potential loneliness epidemic. Same-sex marriage is legal, polyamory and nonmonogamous relationships are becoming less taboo, people are realizing they are asexual, and the love of your life could be one swipe away on dating apps. Every other week the internet debates whether getting coffee or ice cream is a worthy first date and tries to quantify what effort in dating should look like. Romance, in our love lives and platonic relationships, often feels fleeting when love languages are easily lost in translation and the slow burn of vulnerability and trust building feels exhausting.

The downside to modern courtship is that people want to push the fast-forward button from lust to love without romancing each other along the way. Music also has made an unsettling shift over the years, from lyrics of intense longing to hyperdrive moments of half love, a paradigm that continues to leave Usher confused.

“Who the hell said that romance is old-fashioned? There is no way you can tell me we live in a world where we don’t want to take our time and slow down to be romantic with each other,” Usher said. “If you have free time how much are you choosing to spend it with someone and are they even capable of being romantic? I think those songs of our past help us understand how to be men who could be romantic with women.”

These days in music, romantic chases end too soon or never begin, yearning is elusive, the “baby pleases” are wanting, the sex sounds fast and underwhelming, cash is substituted for the little things that make love last. Somewhere along the way modern love bled into music and showcased how frustrated and unimpressed people are with the prospect of love.

For Usher, a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, he said it’s “in his DNA” to keep love alive in his music since he listened to Babyface, the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Brown and the early years of Michael Jackson.

“I think that a bit of romance has been taken from music because maybe those songs aren’t as relevant as they used to be,” Usher said. “It now turns into when we think of R&B let’s focus on pain, let’s focus on the heartache, let’s focus on the dysfunction, let’s focus on maybe not falling in love, or the fact that we can’t fall in love.”

The Grammy winning artist’s discography, which includes platinum-selling records, allows people to run back classics about the wider spectrum of what courtship can be. There’s the bombastic nature of “My Way”; the allure of new love with “You Make Me Wanna”; the anticipation of intoxicating intimacy in “Nice and Slow”; the wistfulness of “U Got It Bad”; the heartbreak of “Burn”; the ego of “U Don’t Have to Call”; the raw truths of “Confessions Part II”; the devotion of “Superstar”; the chart-topping slow jams “Love in This Club” and “Lovers and Friends” to counterbalance club anthems like “Yeah!” and “OMG.” If you look across Usher’s catalog there is a song for nearly every aspect of what can keep romance alive or at bay.

“Romance is the young man’s game, it keeps you young forever, it makes her feel alive,” Usher said. “If you give that romance she will flower for you. She’ll look more gorgeous and beautiful and feel amazing and she will be the shining star in the representation of herself, but more than anything, a representation of how you make her feel.”

Usher’s ninth studio album, “Coming Home,” out this month, is his first as an independent artist.

“I share in what I am creating. It’s not just necessarily a work for hire where I’m a slave to the master, a very unfortunate reality of what artists were subjected to when starting their careers,” Usher said. “Even though [this album] is a part of my legacy, it feels like it’s a separate start of something else that is far more about a lifestyle, a feeling, being immersed and also engaged in things outside of music.”

The 20-track album includes features with Burna Boy, Summer Walker, 21 Savage, Latto, Pheelz, The Dream, H.E.R. and BTS’ Jungkook. There are tracks that are simply smooth and sexy, like the title track “Coming Home” or “Big” or “Stone Kold Freak.” But there are also the heartbreak records that could be the ones that people listen to for fresh breakups or memories of long-lost loves, like “Bop” or “Kissing Strangers.” The song “Ruin” featuring Pheelz has late-night social media post potential with the lyric “You ruined me for everybody.” “I Am the Party” has the entrancing intrigue to be a song Usher uses to serenade future lucky audience members when performing live. “Risk It All” alongside H.E.R. is romantic and beautifully sung and could easily gain popularity as a wedding song in the years to come.

If you ask Usher he will tell you emphatically “the whole album” is romantic. He scrolled down on his phone then pressed the play button for “On the Side” and smiled softly as it played. He’s aware that’s not the most romantic one but he points to the merits of showing what happens with not being sure who you can be vulnerable with.

“Part of this album is being in the middle of this romantic thing but then also dealing with this reality of temptation,” he said. “It’s a subtle thing that’s somewhere in there and the fact that you’re fighting, not turning back towards the temptation.”

One of the reasons Usher is romanticized in R&B is because of his singing voice. It’s a smooth falsetto that decades later still sounds compelling and leaves you in awe. People were reminded of how good he sounds in 2022 when he performed for NPR Tiny Desk. The 24-minute show has garnered 21 million views on YouTube.

Usher was shocked by how engaged the audience was. He was surprised that in a world that has “filtered itself down to eight to maybe 15 seconds,” people ran with the footage to make memes that he could’ve never imagined.

“Here I am having conversations with my son every day and he’s like, ‘Dad, you need to tweet more, or you need to get on Tik Tok’ to do all these things, because that’s how we talk and I’m like, but I do what I do,” Usher said. “The fact that people reacted, and then they put me in that world, it became like, oh man, there’s a way for me to use who I authentically am and exist and be relevant in the world where people want to hear eight seconds of something and they feel it.”

For his NPR performance, Usher decided to do something he had never done before: He sang in his talking voice. He pointed out that it’s “a scary thing to do” as a falsetto singer because of the pressure to be loud and belt out every note. But he says he can do this thanks to a combination of millions of dollars invested in his body and voice, his vocal coaches and being “one of the last Mohicans” committed to the discipline of improving and maintaining the technical side of his vocals. In the early years of his career, chasing vans and running up hills or throwing medicine balls while singing to improve his breath control were not wasted on him. But he also pushes himself to relive the emotion he felt when he first made each song part of his catalog. These days, he said, vocals don’t seem to matter as much as they used to.

“I really do think that there’s something soulful in singing tone,” Usher said. “With music, we just hear a rhythm, we hear a beat, but when you sing something, from my lips, to your ears, it reaches your heart, it reaches your spirit, and the idea and philosophy of that as a practice, I don’t think people care about. They’re like, ‘That’s too technical, that’s too deep,’ but not for me, because I was raised to think like that and approach music in that manner.”

He said part of the problem is “it’s not a mandate to be on key,” adding that most people likely wouldn’t notice if a singer was flat or sharp. He said people don’t spend the time to understand the work that goes into bridging the technical and emotional sides of great singing. More than that, he said, there are larger existential questions about modern-day singing performances that need to be considered. How many people turn off everything and then just sing with no music? How many people stand there with a microphone and just sing to you, and if they do, do you feel it? Is the technical device getting in the way where you can’t reach the emotion?

Jermaine Dupri, a hip-hop artist, producer and songwriter who has worked with Usher over the years, said that the house of R&B became vacant with the loss of greats like Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson and Prince. He said what makes Usher special is that, even though he raps in some of his songs and is “as hip as could possibly be,” he still feels like an authentic R&B artist. While working with Usher on “Nice and Slow” and “U Got It Bad,” Dupri decided to forgo having background singers.

“If you listen to his records, his songs don’t have big background [vocals], because it’s just Usher, his voice is upfront and right in front of you,” Dupri said. “I feel like that’s just a formula that I believe has worked for him that pierces the ear of women, that makes them feel like they’re being directly spoken to.”

Dupri pointed out that articles about Usher in recent months and years have focused on his Vegas residency and now the Super Bowl but rarely ask a central question: “Have you heard this guy perform?”

“He went to this space and he realized that this was an element that you have to show people that you’re serious about being a singer,” Dupri said. “It’s taking care of your voice, that means still doing voice lessons, that means rehearsing, practicing, that means all of these things, and really doing it, not just talking about it … That’s the space that R&B has to get back in.”

Part of what made Usher’s Vegas residency significant is people were reintroduced to his voice, which has only gotten better with time. Dupri said in the last decade newer artists have been smoking, doing drugs and “not really caring about sounding amazing,” to the detriment of R&B. But he took exception to people questioning why or how Usher could perform at the Super Bowl.

“If [Usher] is 45 years old, and he’s still sounding like this, and he’s moving like this, these are the things that should be paid attention to more than the show because everybody has a show, right?” Dupri said. “The show could be so amazing that you don’t even pay attention to the fact that, ‘Oh, this kid vocals sound ridiculous.’ We went through the Milli Vanilli era where people was lip synching. … Usher is not lip synching — he actually wants to sing the songs to you.”

Desiree Perez, CEO of Roc Nation, which books the Super Bowl halftime show, said that Usher’s “presence, dancing and energy make him a perfect choice as a halftime performer.” He previously performed with will.i.am during the halftime show in 2011 in Arlington, Texas.

Praising Usher’s rich music catalog, “of which most songs are anthems,” Perez said, “Usher’s extraordinary Vegas residency and Vegas hosting the city’s first Super Bowl, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Usher remembers an interview years ago in which a journalist pleaded with him not to become a residency artist in 20 years’ time. He refused to say he wasn’t going to become a residency artist “because I’m not gonna go to Las Vegas and become the standard of what you think Las Vegas represents.” He set out to build excitement for R&B and remind people of who he is as a singer and performer. He also has found other potential business ventures have come along.

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In the darkness of the Dolby Live theater in Las Vegas in November, just after singing “Confessions Part II,” Usher is illuminated in a heavenly spotlight. His eyes sparkle as he coyly smirks, breathing in the crowd screaming for him. The light hitting the sheen of sweat on his pectorals. The heftiness of his boulder shoulders. The shadows of every crevice of his abs. The way the V-lines of his chiseled obliques lead to the leather pants crisply sitting on his hips. It’s the kind of showmanship that makes moral compasses short-circuit. But for all of the adoration Usher commands when he’s “giving every bit of vulnerability” he has onstage, he never gets to fully enjoy himself as he works to please others through music and entertainment.

“I finally just stop and just check in with the audience and just see ‘how you like what I gave you’ and they’re going crazy,” Usher said. “In that moment, I get a chance to feel something, I get a chance to feel what I’m putting out there. Sometimes you don’t stop for the applause or maybe in the process of performing people give you the applause, they got a chance to enjoy [themselves], but they didn’t get a chance to really celebrate you.”

But Usher was initially afraid of Las Vegas residencies. For all of its money, opportunities, glamour and vices, Las Vegas was at one point considered where artists go when their music careers had stalled. His first residency was at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2021. The shows were such a hit that he moved over to Park MGM in 2022. Those shows were extended until the end of 2023. Usher once thought that Las Vegas was a place artists go to “collect a check,” but he recognized it didn’t have to be that way.

“Life in the entertainment industry at large is about how you perceive it, what you make it. If you want to make it a place where you go and just play your old records and you die, that ain’t what I use it for and that’s not what it should be,” Usher said. “I’m happy to see that there’s a future there, and I ain’t gonna be done with it. I’m not sure when I’m gonna go back, but I ain’t done.”

Amid the spine-tingling vocals and dancing that had sweat flying from Usher’s forehead and arms, one of the most remarkable parts of the “My Way” residency was how it bucked the respectability politics of pleasure that Black women face. Black women — who made up the majority of the crowds — experienced being Usher’s collective muses while he worked to please and be exalted as he sang, danced and even rollerskated around the stage. He also made a point to go into the crowd and sing, giving audience members seated farther away the chance to see him up close. He virtually dared them to want anyone but him. Attending the show was a nightly journey into a mecca for raw masculinity, vulnerability, sensuality and freshly stirred urges and desires. It was the space for sexual freedom that Black women have always deserved and often appreciate Usher for providing. It was also a showcase of the signature soulfulness of R&B, sung in a voice that has stood the test of time and made the live show sound even better than the album.

One of the other reasons Usher continues to be cherished is the romantic intentionality and thoughtfulness he offers that Black female fans do not always receive in their own lives. In Usher’s case, he said his work is inspired by his love for creating an environment that makes them feel comfortable. He said he hopes, in light of being raised by Black women, that he is “something that Black women, or women all around the world everywhere, feels proud of.”

“Every time I’m sitting in that audience [hearing him sing] it’s like the first time,” said Jonnetta Patton, Usher’s mother and former manager who oversaw his career for 17 years. When Usher called her at home to tell her about the Super Bowl performance, the first thing she told him was, “You deserve it, it’s your time.”

“That’s why I’m telling you I’m so happy right now,” Patton said. “I can’t even tell you how happy I am just to see him perform on the biggest stage.”

Her son’s path to stardom was not always easy. When he hit puberty and his voice started changing, he nearly lost his first record deal with LaFace Records.

“There were some really sad moments because no one believed in him,” Patton said. “He had to actually fight his way through and I had to fight the record company to make sure that they put him with the right vocal coaches. I think they were afraid because they’ve never worked with a young artist before and they didn’t know what to do.”

Patton described her son as a long list of proud-mom attributes including loving, caring, gifted, talented, driven, confident and a perfectionist who doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body. His relentlessness and drive to be famous is why Patton created a 25-year plan for his career when she was his manager. Part of that plan included him eventually becoming a Vegas residency artist. She said she could see that Vegas was slowly becoming a place for young artists.

When asked where Black women’s devotion to Usher comes from, Patton said she remembered the days when he was performing as a teenager and women being enthralled with him and his gentleness. He still inspires that level of fanaticism for a reason.

“He’s sexy,” Patton said. “What woman wouldn’t love Usher? You see those abs? He’s sexy, nice, loves his mom — that’s where it comes from.”

Usher is not the first R&B artist to inspire such spirited female fan devotion. But whether he’s shirtless or building hopeful anticipation that he’ll choose to serenade you, the foundation of Usher’s shows is a guarantee that it’ll be a night to remember that includes what Black women want, need and fantasize about. Usher’s heartthrob status, being part of generations of sexual awakenings and reawakenings, is emblematic of how amid fanatical behavior — the screaming, the squealing and sometimes the passing out — there is joy seeing Black women crush hard on the men they first loved from a screen or a song. If Black women’s ideas of intimacy, romance and sexual expression expand to include Usher — his voice, his body, his music or his sense of masculinity — then he believes he has done his job.

The hallmarks of a celebrity heartthrob are the right combination of handsomeness, style, charisma, humor, talent and aura that leaves fans euphoric. Appreciating Black men as heartthrobs means recognizing the depths of their masculinity alongside their sexual agency and appeal. This includes how they consent to attention and advances, what feels good to them, what brings them joy, what makes them feel softest, what pains them, what moves them, what keeps them up at night and what they yearn for. They may not always let their fans into these moments, but Black men are the most beautiful when they are free to exhibit the range of their humanity.

“I’m going to give you the environment to recognize that you have the freedom to be as fun and wild as you can for this night,” Usher said. “While I have you in my care, I give you the freedom to just imagine, have fun, feel sexy, feel as feminine as you can. My masculinity in that moment is ‘I got you.’ Without holding your hand, I’m holding your hand, by looking at you and talking to you, by singing and saying what I’m saying to you and how I sing it to you, making you feel something. … If that is safety, then hopefully I did something right.”

Usher’s ideas of romance have evolved over time as he’s become older. Since he first started dating decades ago, he is honest that he has never been single longer than a year. He’s happily in a relationship with his current partner, Jenn Goicoechea. These days he’s striving to be the best he can be without trying to be perfect or finding what he thinks is perfect. He is mindful that his curiosity and desire over the years hurt himself and other people.

“I think I spent more time trying to be in love than actually being all the way in it and that’s a very honest and transparent thing,” Usher said. “It’s not to say that I didn’t love the women that I’ve been with in the past, even the woman that I married, it’s not. But maybe I didn’t really understand what love was about.”

He feels the most romantic when he’s alone with someone and can give his undivided attention. He said romance is not about sex but rather the amount of time people are willing to spend to get to know someone. Part of his growth with how he considers love and intimacy has meant getting past previous experiences and committing to be judgment free of the person before him.

“Love isn’t just a physical thing, it’s far, far more than just what you are feeling in this current state,” he asks. “Can you still love someone through all of their life experience? You might not like who they are every day, but will you love them every day? I might not like what you have to offer every day, I might have to really challenge myself to be patient. But if I love you, and I’m really in love with you, then I’m in love with all of who you are.”

As he looks ahead, Usher said he hopes his legacy includes being remembered as a romantic person. But he is also thinking about this next era of his career and how to also have a legacy where he is able to transform and transcend how people feel about music. He’s drawing inspiration from how hip-hop has transcended other cultural things like headphones, shoes, clothes and jewelry. In doing that, he hopes venturing into other types of potential businesses — from fragrances to restaurants — can provide a blueprint for other artists to see how they can stretch their creativity beyond music.

“I will hope that my legacy could be represented as a person who constantly evolved, and provided something that was special,” Usher said. “Something that gave liberty and freedom to people, something that gave permission to be as fun, free, freaky, masculine and yet sensitive and vulnerable at the same time … that my legacy gave people something that felt elevated and sophisticated, something that made people feel like, ‘Oh, I have something of value,’ [something] unique.”

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