The Enduring Appeal of Usher

7 minute read

Last summer, a video of Usher serenading actor Keke Palmer onstage at his Las Vegas residency made the rounds online. In the clip, Usher slow-dances with the star like she’s the only person in the room, while crooning his falsetto-laden 2010 ballad “There Goes My Baby.” It was all enough to leave Palmer star-struck and giddy. That song, the dance, Usher’s undivided attention were the stuff of a romantic fantasy the R&B star has been cultivating for three decades—seductive but respectful, flirtatious, and wholly charming. Palmer’s unfettered joy was so tangible, so infectious, that I could feel myself blushing, falling under the irresistible spell of Usher, even through a screen.

Usher’s magnetism has been well documented over the course of his career. His charisma is so arresting that it inspired a 2007 episode of The Boondocks in which the animated Usher’s mere presence leads to a marital separation. In an iconic cameo as himself in the 2019 film Hustlers, he holds an entire strip club in his thrall, his song “Love in the Club” playing as he lavishes attention on the dancers. His 2022 NPR Tiny Desk Concert netted over 20 million views, making it one of the series’ most popular installments. And that viral clip of Usher serenading Palmer was so electrifying, it instigated a petty, misogynistic social media response from her then partner that united the internet in righteous indignation.

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There’s never been a better time to reconsider the enduring thrills of Usher’s charm, as the 45-year-old singer, songwriter, dancer, actor, showman, and sex symbol enters what feels like a bona fide renaissance. Though it’s been nearly 30 years since he made his debut, his voice is as dulcet as it was in the ’90s, his dance moves as sinuous, his often shirtless torso as chiseled as ever—and his schedule, as busy. Fresh off his wildly popular Las Vegas residency, which sold so well it got extended twice, he’s released three new singles in the past year and is set to debut his ninth studio album, Coming Home, on Feb. 9, just days before he takes the biggest stage in the entertainment world, one that has been known to draw more than 100 million viewers and graced by the likes of Prince and U2, Madonna and Michael Jackson: headlining the Super Bowl halftime show.

Apple, the show’s sponsor, is promoting it with a heavy nod to Usher’s longevity, the ads splicing celebrity appearances with 20-year-old footage. But it’s also a pivotal moment for him as an artist and R&B’s foremost ambassador. No other headliner in recent years has represented the genre quite like Usher, making his performance a potential bid for a new generation of listeners. Paired with the release of an album that sees him creatively reunited with L.A. Reid, one of the architects of his now signature sound, the time is ripe for Usher to create some new classics.

Born in Texas and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., before moving to Atlanta to foster his burgeoning music career, Usher Raymond IV was discovered on Star Search as a teen, leading to a record deal with Reid and Babyface’s label, LaFace Records. In the years since debuting his self-titled album in 1994, at 15, he’s proved himself time and again the reigning King of R&B.

Over the span of his career, Usher has clinched nine No. 1 singles and released eight studio albums. He’s won eight Grammys, his 2004 hit track “Confessions Part II” crowned by Rolling Stone as the “best R&B song of the 21st century.” The album from which it hailed, Confessions, achieved the highest certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, diamond, when it surpassed 10 million sales in 2008. This made Usher the first and last R&B artist since Stevie Wonder, whose 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life was certified in 2005, to receive this distinction. He's also the last Black artist in any genre to achieve this.

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The music, in other words, has consistently been excellent—even as he’s dabbled in EDM and Broadway, sometimes to the dismay of his more purist fans. But while Usher’s accomplishments have solidified his place among the greats, it’s his reputation as the most charming man in R&B that has cemented his legacy.

Charm is a slippery, ineffable quality. That Usher has a wide and easy smile bookended by dimples, phenomenal moves, the gracious manners of a gentleman, the silky-smooth voice of an angel, and the ability to roller-skate backward while singing are all components of his larger-than-life aura. But the underlying essence of Usher’s undeniable and timeless appeal lies in the deep sense of intimacy that permeates his music and performance—even in a football stadium. He routinely captures rapt attention in arena shows, which crackle with longing and desire or explode into shrieks and screams. Indeed, Usher’s greatest gift, aside from his more obvious talent as a singer and dancer, is his ability to make every woman in his presence feel like he’s singing directly to them.

This is clear not just in the way he performs but in his songbook itself, full of hits that make art of the triumphs and trials of being human—and particularly the emotional, sometimes messy business of falling in and out of love (arguably Usher’s, and R&B’s, favorite subject). An Usher track feels like a secret shared between lovers, the confidential outpouring of a broken heart. Lyrically, he is by turn sweetly romantic and unabashedly provocative, sometimes even on the same track. On 1997’s “Nice and Slow,” he croons about taking it slow in the same breath that he declares “I want to do something freaky to you.” His most compelling displays of vulnerability, however, may be found in his heartbreak ballads, a staple of his oeuvre that’s wildly popular, going by the success of Confessions. “I’m twisted ’cause one side of me is tellin’ me that I need to move on,” he sings plaintively on his 2004 track “Burn” about a breakup that’s been a long time coming. “On the other side, I wanna break down and cry.”

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Usher’s persona has long been that of the player with a heart of gold, the musical equivalent of the Will Smith rom-com Hitch. For an object of so many people’s lust, he’s surprisingly wholesome—a proud father of four who sings the ABC’s on Sesame Street and speaks glowingly of his partner. It’s a distinction that has set him apart from his contemporaries, who might sing about women but rarely sing to or for them. And it’s possibly made him the genre’s last great super-star. Recent years have proved tumultuous for some of Usher’s R&B contemporaries, like R. Kelly and Chris Brown, whose controversies have overshadowed their craft. And emerging artists in the genre have failed to match his resonance or, as yet at least, longevity.

Which makes Usher’s time on the Super Bowl LVIII halftime stage all the more significant. Here’s an artist who’s helped define his genre for 30 years, all while making it look effortlessly cool. For 13 minutes, he’ll have the world’s attention, a chance to proudly declare what many already know—that R&B is not dead. While there’s sure to be flashy theatrics, buzzy guest stars and possibly new music (because if anyone knows how to put on a show, it’s Usher, baby), the real measure of success will be his ability to offer on the largest possible scale what he’s always given his fans: a moment to succumb to the spell of his serenade.

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