A few minutes into Usher’s dynamic and sly Super Bowl LVIII halftime show performance Sunday night at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas came a moment of uncommon, almost startling calm.
Alicia Keys had just appeared, in a sequined red jumpsuit and matching encrusted gown, and rather gratuitously flubbed the opening note of her hit piano ballad “If I Ain’t Got You.”
She recovered, and as she approached the end of the chorus, you could hear Usher singing in quiet harmony as the camera panned back, settling on the two of them at opposite ends of Keys’s piano. Usher picked up the final line of the chorus — alone, smooth and confident, almost whispered — before Keys returned to share the last note.
Allegiant Stadium holds approximately 65,000 people, but in that instant, there were only two. It was one of the quietest sequences in halftime history, a remarkable testament to the gifts of Usher, a performer of precise detail who is enjoyed best with rapt attention.
Most of the rest of the performance — which touched on more than a dozen songs — was grander in scale, designed to fill a football field: A small-bore, granular-gestured showcase gave way to an explosive party. But what this set did so well was make plain that Usher’s commitment to minutiae and his capacity for grandeur are fired in the same cauldron. He can control the stage when it is packed to the gills, and he can do it alone.
Thirty years into his career, Usher, 45, is a showman with his voice, to be sure, but also — and maybe more so — with his body and his feet. From the opening, the telecast was careful not to waste any of his movements, the camera resting on him as he worked through careful footwork and body-bending routines. The fact that he was doing many of these moves on grass, especially in the first segment — “Caught Up,” “U Don’t Have to Call” — was especially impressive.
He began with dance-centric hits with indelible opening lines, took a brief spoken interlude to acknowledge God and his mother, then offered a sprinkle of the ballad “Superstar” before being joined, loudly, by a marching band on “Love in This Club.” Keys’s subsequent set piece ended with the two vocalists singing “My Boo” while tenderly sashaying.
Then the transition to party mode began. The Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri did some crowd warm-up work before Usher delivered “Confessions Part II,” one of the most upbeat songs about sexual infidelity in pop history. After a brief detour through “Nice & Slow” (with a brief acknowledgment of the song’s recent afterlife as a meme) and the saucily urgent “Burn,” he came to “U Got It Bad,” in which he did an extended dance routine with an agreeable microphone stand.
Up until this point, Usher had been in a steady procession of dishabille — a white fur coat giving way to a cropped white blazer giving way to a heavily sequined sleeveless T-shirt. Here, he completed the journey, stripping to a tank top and then down to nothing above the waist but his signature U diamond pendant. (In fairness, the jokey preshow warning did say that the performance may cause “possible relationship issues.”)
This was the show’s peak: his strongest singing with his most detailed dancing. It was small-stage Usher — not dissimilar to the one who spent much of the last year performing a residency at the Park MGM Hotel and Casino just 10 minutes up the road — holding down an impossibly grand presentation.
From that point on, everything was loose, unburdened fun. H.E.R. played some thrusting guitar, and shifted into the silky funk of “Bad Girl.” Soon, the stage was cluttered with dancers on skates — an embrace of Atlanta’s Black roller rink culture. Usher himself, now wearing a glittering black-and-blue motorcycling get-up, was on skates, too, and nimbly at that.
An Atlanta party had commenced. He did a tiny bit of “OMG,” a collaboration with Will.i.am that mostly served to underscore the common threads between pop-EDM and the Atlanta crunk music that preceded it by almost a decade. Lil Jon arrived for some motivational shouting, and then transitioned into “Yeah!” That 2004 collaboration took some of the most serrated textures in hip-hop and made them inescapable pop. Ludacris was there, too, managing to sneak in a few of his bawdiest lyrics on this most sanitized of stages.
This finale was a halftime show bonanza: a 20-year-old hit that still sounds like it’s from the future, a rip-roaring party of hundreds, a link between Black college marching bands and the hip-hop and R&B that they often interpret on the field. Everyone onstage did the A-town stomp, the muscle, the thunderclap, the rockaway. “I took the world to the A,” Usher chanted, reminding everyone that in his hands, the global and the local are one and the same.