Is Usher still relevant?

By Emily Ornberg

For Sun-Times Media

Monday was the coldest night of the fall season so far in Chicago, but the majority of Usher’s dedicated vixens at the United Center were unfazed. Dolled in teeny leopard-print spandex dresses, fur vests, 4-inch faux eyelashes with 8-inch heels, the dames transformed the women’s bathroom into their own private club. A cloud of smoke and hairspray loomed above the stalls. Lip gloss wands were waved around as the gaggle of girls fought for even an inch of mirror space. “OMG, I can’t believe this night is finally here,” one megafan shrieked to another as she adjusted her bra. “I have been waiting to see Usher for-EVER!”

It’s no surprise tonight is the biggest night of the year for some, as witnessing Usher is like being a part of history. He boasts two-decades worth of delectably soulful R&B hits about lust, love, heartbreak and everything in between, flavored with sounds that are equal parts rigid and milky, vocals that soar to exultant high sighs and a remarkable dancing skills. His influence has been so substantial, Usher assumed the title of “the new king of pop” after predecessor Michael Jackson. However, recent flops from Usher’s upcoming album “UR” resulted in him pulling the album from release entirely, leaving some to ask the dreaded question: Is 36-year-old Usher still relevant?

Let’s deliberate.

His accessibility is unmatched.

With Chris Brown in and out of jail and R. Kelly still creepy, the lovable Usher is still “the sweetest non-virgin a mama could ask for.” His kindness and humility make his sexual croons come off as cute instead of crude, setting a good example for artists for years to come. The pop statesman has given back by mentoring upcoming artists to stardom, such as Justin Bieber and Josh Kaufman, who won season 6 of “The Voice” under Usher’s tutelage. And at the United Center, opener August Alsina and surprise guests Rico Love and Trey Songz each came out to perform their own duet with Usher and thank him for his influence.

The diverse crowd at this show was another reflection of his wide range and reach, all dancing along to an intoxicating amount of hits, such as “Nice & Slow” and “Yeah!” Such longevity is rare, as Usher even recognizes: “Shit, I’m singing love songs that went on to be baby-makers — and now the damn babies are in the audience,” he told Billboard. “Talk about a family reunion.”

However, Usher has fallen victim to conformity.

An artist with such prestige as Usher has the power to capture the ears of millions worldwide. His 2004 smash “Confessions,” stuffed with raw emotions, remarkable vocal talent and unmatched swag, became the No. 1 album of the decade, and remains one of the most successful albums of all time. So when Usher releases synthetic copycats of proven sounds, it’s disappointing.

Sure, as an artist he must evolve. And he has proven he can interpret new sounds well — his emotive rendition of the heart-wrenching, Diplo-produced “Climax” was chillingly astonishing, sans backup dancers or fancy stage pyrotechnics. However, having to sit through the skilled R&B veteran’s new material, such as the hokey cowbell-funk jam “She Came To Give It To You” and the slowed tango track “Good Kisser” leaves a cheap aftertaste. As he performed the latter, he put on a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and made the track last about 12 minutes too long, repeating, “She’s such a good kisser/ Got lipstick on my leg… Imma rain on this parade.” There has to be some middle ground between sexual bachelor to groovy dad without releasing singles that sound like they were tailor-made for a predictably skeezy Wrigleyville club.

Usher is still undeniably sexy.

His two-hour spectacle featured dazzling production, impressive choreography, bouncing hydraulics and multiple sneaker changes, but the show only sparkled when Usher got out of Usher’s way.

He carried a sense of effortless poise about him that it doesn’t matter if he’s 16 or 36, he still oozes sexiness. As he sang the intro for “Superstar,” a caramelly guitar lick oozed throughout the stadium as he pointed and winked at audience members whispering, “This is for you, you, you… my number one.” During the acoustic portion of the night, he let songs such as “U Got it Bad” build as the audience melted. He performed the majority of the lovesick ballad “Burn” a capella, allowing his soft pitch-perfect cadence to capture the crowd’s full attention.

But he forgets less is more.

If only he focused that attention to the music instead of the spectacle. He was able to somewhat keep up with the back up dancers, but for the most part he sauntered around them, leaping about the automated stage and posing in front of the cheesy graphic backdrops. Too much organized choreography took away from his fluidity; when he allowed himself to groove with the music, his personality and physical talent shone through.

Unfortunately, interruption came too often throughout his set. When the opening notes of the remorseful ballad “Confessions” glistened across the stadium erupting squeals, the D.J. interrupted the track immediately for unwarranted banter and a different Usher medley. And when he invited fans to dance with him for “Bad Girl,” it dragged the show on, especially after the song began with technical difficulties. A little editing in the setlist would have gone a long way.

Final call.

To see the man we all grew up listening to still be able to masterfully execute a slow-motion twerk while delivering immaculate songbird scales was enough to call the show a success. Usher still has the potential to remain great, he just needs to create music that will last.

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