Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.
Across his 30-year career, Usher has been deemed the “King of R&B” and a “legend” for his catalog of Top 10 hits, smooth dance breaks, life-changing serenades, and lighthearted, meme-worthy energy. And yet, fans and music experts still have to explain why the superstar is a big deal ahead of his career-defining Super Bowl moment.
In September, Usher surprised his younger self with the news that he’d be performing during the major event. A promotional video following the NFL’s announcement shows present-day Usher calling Usher from the 2004 “Confessions Pt. II” music video to deliver the big news. “Stop playin’ with me,” the younger Usher responds. Many saw the eight-time Grammy-winning singer as an obvious, even overdue, choice. Fans rejoiced, posting “Yeahhhh!” (a nod to Usher’s 2004 hit featuring rappers Lil Jon and Ludacris) and jokingly claiming to be prepping the Y2K outfits they’ll wear to their living rooms to watch one of the country’s biggest stars hit the NFL stage.
But critics also spoke out. On a Reddit post about the announcement, a user commented, “Wow, this would have been really exciting news 20 years ago” and received nearly 4,000 upvotes. Another wrote, “Seriously the best they could do?” On X, one user wrote ahead of the announcement, “I know y’all think Usher should perform the next SB but I don’t think he has enough pop/hip-hop hits.”
More recently, as Taylor Swift’s romance with Travis Kelce — who will play in the big game — continues to dominate the news cycle, Swifties have demanded that Usher bring Swift onstage. Some have argued the attention on the Eras star is already dimming Usher’s moment.
One could say that the mixed reactions ahead of Usher’s show are typical responses for any Super Bowl announcement: One artist, or genre, can’t please the more than 100 million viewers who tune in. But experts told Vox that the critics questioning Usher’s impact and relevance are illustrating something much bigger: It’s a reaction that’s indicative of racial, generational, and cultural divides in America.
“The discourse is really showing how we live in two different Americas,” said Taylor Crumpton, a writer and culture critic who has written extensively about the return of R&B. “There’s a [contingent] of people who feel that Usher getting a Super Bowl is way overdue. It’s time to give him his flowers.”
What the perfect Super Bowl halftime star needs
An event as massive as the Super Bowl halftime show requires an artist with a deep catalog of well-known hits, dedicated fans, and widespread appeal. They must be able to speak to the NFL’s diverse and enormous audience. Some 118.7 million people tuned in to the 2023 halftime show, the most viewers in the show’s history.
Usher has performed at the Super Bowl before — in 2011, alongside the headlining Black Eyed Peas, to sing “OMG,” his 2010 hit featuring will.i.am. In 2024, during Black History Month, he’ll perform a career retrospective and honor the Black artists who came before him.
“It’s an honor of a lifetime to finally check a Super Bowl performance off my bucket list. I can’t wait to bring the world a show unlike anything else they’ve seen from me before,” the 45-year-old veteran entertainer said in a statement at the time of the announcement.
Some are already saying that the halftime performance is a part of Usher’s renaissance, but others see the moment as confirmation of what the star has been giving fans all along.
“I don’t think it’s so much a renaissance moment as it is a validation moment,” said Naima Cochrane, culture journalist and professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. “Usher’s been Usher. He has a longevity and consistency of brand and presence that is unmatched in R&B.”
Having the King of R&B headline football’s main event makes sense for the NFL in 2024.
Back in the summer of 2019, Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s entertainment company, struck a deal with the league to produce the Super Bowl halftime show. When the deal went through, many speculated that the NFL signed it to distract from its racist history and present and to quell uproar over its treatment of Colin Kaepernick. Critics see Usher’s performance as somewhat linked to this effort.
Since 2019, Roc Nation has selected a diverse slate of artists, a mix of icons and popular newcomers with current hits. There was Shakira and Jennifer Lopez in 2020; The Weeknd the following year; a hip-hop-themed showcase for the genre’s 50th anniversary featuring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar in 2022; and last year’s performance by Rihanna. It was a reset from over a decade of often lackluster shows.
Following 2004’s wardrobe malfunction with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson — which received more than half a million Federal Communications Commission complaints — the NFL parted ways with producer MTV and brought on Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and The Who over the next six years, hoping to play it safe. The mostly white male “classic” artists were an attempt to appease viewers who complained that the show had gone astray, but the shows became something of a joke for featuring what the Washington Post called “over-the-hill rockers.”
“Since MTV stopped doing the halftime show, there’s never really been any consistency with who is selected for the act,” said Cochrane. “I think the Super Bowl just chooses to focus on different things at different times.”
In 2024, the league and its affiliates have decided to focus on Usher. And it’s time to put some respect on his name.
People have tried to deny Usher’s legacy
Usher has most recently been crowned the “New King of Vegas,” the city where he’ll perform on the Super Bowl stage at Allegiant Stadium.
HAVING THE KING OF R&B HEADLINE FOOTBALL’S MAIN EVENT MAKES SENSE FOR THE NFL IN 2024
He began a residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2021 and a year later moved to the Park MGM, where tickets consistently sold out. The show was extended multiple times until the end of 2023, when Usher wrapped it up after 100 performances. The residency stage was part strip club, part roller skating rink, part parade, and part jazz club, and his decades-spanning career prepared him well for it.
Before arriving in Las Vegas, it had been six years since Usher was on tour. He told GQ, “I really wanted to give women something to look forward to, something to come here to Las Vegas with their friends for. They’ve been saving up all year and were able to manage to get away from their kids or get away from their problems.”
The show grew popular as countless celebrities (Keke Palmer, various Kardashians, LeBron James, Jennifer Lopez, Doja Cat, Zendaya and Tom Holland, Issa Rae, and more) stopped by and videos of the superstar serenading thirsty audience members went viral. In a number of videos, fans could be seen running up to touch Usher as he walked through the crowd singing “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home).”
Usher’s popular songs carried the show. Out of his 18 Billboard Top 10 hits, a whopping nine of them (“Nice & Slow,” “U Remind Me,” “Yeah!,” “U Got It Bad,” “Confessions Part II,” “Burn,” “My Boo,” “Love in This Club,” and “OMG”) made it to No. 1. He has 53 songs that made it to the Billboard Hot 100, and by some estimates he has sold over 100 million records in his career. His stage presence has earned dozens of awards, including Grammys, Critics Choice Awards, BET and MTV Music Awards, and NAACP Image Awards.
Cochrane said that Usher’s traditional training is what makes him unmatched today.
“He has always been a consummate performer, one of the last of his school who really got to sit at the feet of the greats, directly learn from them, and apply it,” she said. The star names icons like Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, and more as his inspirations. “He’s in the last of the classes who were in vocal training, underwent artist development, or were in the studio learning their stage shows. He is an entertainer, and we don’t have a lot of those anymore.”
Usher’s roles and guest appearances on various reality TV programs expanded his stardom. He joined fellow music icons Shakira, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton on season four of The Voice as a coach. He returned in season six, leading his team to victory, and appeared on later seasons as a leading coach and adviser. His “watch this” moment during his NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2022, in which he placed his fingers across his face to the beat and became a viral meme, endeared him to viewers and reminded everyone of his charm.
While Usher’s career took a dip in the 2010s when changes at Billboard tested R&B’s popularity, after dominating the 1990s and aughts, he remained relevant, critics say. “The album that people point to as his flop” — Raymond v. Raymond — “was still a platinum album. He has had moments where he’s less consistent, but he’s always been present and relevant,” Cochrane said. “We take him for granted. Usher is doing collaborations with these younger artists. He’s sampling his own work. How many people get to do that?”
USHER’S TRADITIONAL TRAINING IS WHAT MAKES HIM UNMATCHED TODAY
The Super Bowl announcement isn’t the first time Usher’s legacy has been questioned. During online debates about who would make a good matchup for the popular pandemic Verzuz battles, commentators cast doubt on Usher’s record, uncertain he’d be able to win over Chris Brown. And in the early 2000s, some people pitted Usher against Justin Timberlake, seeing them as rivals.
With the halftime show, some people have questioned Usher’s crossover appeal — whether he can appeal to audiences who love pop and also hip-hop. But it is his crossover appeal that makes him the no-brainer choice for the Super Bowl, critics told Vox.
“Gen Z may think of Usher as a person who signed Justin Bieber, whereas earlier generations see him as a king with crossover appeal — working not only in music but also in TV and film,” said Crumpton. “Every suburban soccer mom feels a type of way when ‘Yeah!’ comes on.”
Usher just released his ninth studio album, Coming Home, a few days after announcing a new world tour and a few days ahead of the big game. It’s a medley of Afrobeats hits featuring new artists, across 20 tracks.
But the star made it clear that his performance at Super Bowl LVIII will focus on the impact of Black R&B artists of the past.
“To have R&B have the main stage at the Super Bowl, it’s a major thing for me,” he said in an interview with Good Morning America. “I think about what our country has kind of represented for Black artists having to at some point go through kitchens to even be able to perform for an audience, but they had to leave back through that same door [and] fear for their lives as they went to the next state to do the same thing. So I’m coming through the front door with this one. I think about all of the R&B performers who I carry in this moment.”
In the short 13-minute show, critics expect Usher to bring the energy, be elaborate, but most of all represent where he’s from.
“He’s going to elevate Black people in Atlanta and Black peop