As his buzzy Las Vegas residency draws to a close, the scrupulous R&B superstar is still in search of his hyper-self.
Successful, too. So wildly so that Usher extended his “My Way” residency into December after the rah-rah surrounding it helped him land the upcoming Super Bowl halftime show in February. But even as his time in Vegas winds down, Usher remains wound up. There’s something extraordinarily musical happening up on that stage. It feels internal, and intense, and rare. Usher has always been a pleaser, but at 45, he suddenly sounds like he’s trying to please something unknowable within — a singer in search of his hyper-self.
Las Vegas is a weird setting for such an existential undertaking. Historically, it’s where pop stars go to calcify and cash in, presenting their most legible selves while putting forth the least amount of effort. Out here, Usher is all effort. Thanks to what must be an excruciating fitness regimen, he looks and sounds as agile as he did a whole two decades ago — which falls in neat parallel to the vague annihilation of temporality inherent to Las Vegas itself, where the darkened casino floors are designed to make you forget what time it is, just as the throwback acts dotting the strip try to make you forget what year it is. “My Way” might be a nostalgia show, but Usher feels vividly present, and his songs sound more detailed than they ever have. Maybe he knows that outdoing himself is the only real way to outperform everyone else’s memories.
Depending how well-versed you are in his life and music, those memories might go like this: Usher Raymond IV grew up singing in Chattanooga church choirs, raised without his father around, which often left him competing for the attention of women (possibly formative). His mother recognized his gifts and relocated the family to Atlanta, where countless hours on the local talent show circuit led to an appearance on “Star Search.” After inking a record contract at age 14, Usher hit puberty and lost control of his voice (definitely formative), then ventured north to New York to enlist in a pop star boot camp overseen by a young Sean Combs. Usher’s self-titled debut landed in 1994 and made a cute splash. His second album, 1997’s “My Way,” turned him into a national heartthrob. His third, 2001’s “8701,” made him sound like a generational voice. And his fourth, 2004’s “Confessions,” made him a superstar. Having now sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, it’s his masterpiece, widely considered the last blockbuster before the music industry eroded into digital disarray.
“I’m not in competition with anyone but myself,” Usher told the Chicago Tribune unblinkingly in 2004, shortly after “Confessions” dropped. “I’m a tool that’s been well sharpened.” But that tool cut a wavy path through popular culture in the years that followed, and when his singles failed to resonate at “Confessions” levels, he found other ways to stay in the public eye. In 2013, he sang the alphabet on Sesame Street (if you’ve never seen it, stop what you’re doing this instant), and began coaching young popland hopefuls on NBC’s “The Voice.” He was a natural charmer on television, but in the recording booth, his hits grew freakier in form (“Climax”) and content (“Good Kisser”). Since landing in Vegas in the summer of 2021, he’s given an indelible and excessively memed Tiny Desk Concert on NPR, and if everything goes to plan, he’ll drop his ninth album, “Coming Home,” while singing for a television audience of many-millions on Super Bowl Sunday.
Yet somehow, onstage at Park MGM’s Dolby Live theater on a Tuesday night in early November, Usher didn’t sound trapped in any of those past lives. Instead, he seemed to be going back and perfecting them. And let’s be clear: The only person demanding this perfection was Usher. He isn’t drawing casual catch-a-show crowds off the Vegas strip so much as longtime fans with extra miles on their credit cards, which meant the air inside Dolby Live felt thick with perfume and goodwill. When Usher’s voice finally swirled into that airborne mix, it felt far more dazzling than it needed to be, his elastic melisma — the church-born vocal technique in R&B where a singer takes a single syllable on a roller-coaster ride of different notes — communicating a highly organized sense of yearning, making messy emotions feel precise.
Listen to these vocalizations with the same level of attention with which they’re being thrown down and it’s impossible to miss how available Usher’s falsetto is to him. Instead of reaching for the highest high notes, his voice simply goes where it’s needed, without any pleading, or struggle, or strain. Over the lumpy, asymmetrical beat of “Good Kisser,” he instantly leaped from a deep, carnal monotone to teakettle highs without making anyone wait for the music to come to a boil. During “Climax,” he sang almost entirely at the peak of his voice, making lyrics about romantic stasis sound as if they were trapped in the top in his throat. And with the evening’s most astonishing songs about romantic lows and highs — “U Don’t Have to Call,” “Burn,” “Confessions Part II” — he seemed to be recarving his melodies’ rococo contours until they felt realer than real.
Did anyone fly home from their Las Vegas vacation talking about all the notes Usher hit? If you’ve been following this residency on social media, you may have developed the impression that it’s just one big digital content creation exercise, with Usher methodically serenading a steady sequence of actress-admirers that has thus far included Taraji P. Henson, Keke Palmer, Issa Rae, Tiffany Haddish and others. What you see less of on TikTok is Usher gliding up and down the aisles, cooing “There Goes My Baby” to everybody else. Has any pop star this famous ever spent this much touchy-feely time in their audience? Has any human being ever sung this virtuosically while posing for selfies with ecstatic strangers?
The New York Times recently asked a much bigger question — “Can Usher Turn America on Again (To R&B)?” — while positing him as the genre’s potential “savior.” But before anyone warms up the anointing oils, maybe we should ask ourselves about Usher’s place in R&B’s popular decline. Male R&B singers are exceedingly rare in today’s mainstream, having been largely usurped by the vulnerable singsong styles of Drake, the superstar rapper who, along with duet partner and Usher-facsimile Trey Songz, sang an especially prophetic hook back in 2009: “I just wanna be successful.”
Usher just wants to be successful, too. Still. It’s the fundamental desire at the center of his musical being. His voice is fluent in emotion, but it doesn’t convey the ugliness of raw pain. Usher never really growls, or bellows, or rasps, or roars. Yes, he’s inherited nearly all of the agility, vitality, elegance and expressiveness of his R&B forebears — Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross — but he is not wounded like they were. The animating force beneath his singing feels more like anxiety, a paranoia over unfulfilled ambition — which makes his music a strange and singular bridge between the overwhelming explosiveness of Otis Redding and the overwhelmed numbness of Frank Ocean.
Onstage, this music is about the pursuit of perfection, and the thrill of achievement, and the only way it doesn’t sound like the night of your life is if you’re listening as hard as Usher is listening — in which case you’ll realize that this man didn’t just spend the past two years in Las Vegas, he spent them inside his own head. What does it sound like in there? Either like his everything still isn’t enough, or that something very close to perfect can still get better. For a singer to commit himself to learning the difference is a success that the rest of us can only dream of knowing.