OPINION: The ageless singer ran through a quick medley of hits sounding as good in 2022 as he did two decades ago.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
On the heels of one of the most entertaining, yet least vocally enjoyable Verzuz “battles” of all time, Usher graced NPR’s Tiny Desk to add his name to the list of artists with epic Tiny Desk concerts. Floating over hits from his My Way through Confessions albums, and sounding as good live as he does in the studio reminded me of something that I don’t think we spend enough time talking about:
Usher is an R&B legend. In my mind, this isn’t a controversial statement, and perhaps it isn’t, but I wonder if it’s a consensus statement.
Now, one six-song setlist performed at a literal desk in the offices of NPR does not a legend make. But there was a reminder in there somewhere. For instance, Usher mentioned a few times that we’re coming up on the 25-year anniversary of his sophomore album, 1997’s My Way (released on Sept. 16, 1997). That nine-track album—technically it’s 10, but the last song is just “You Make Me Wanna…” extended—featured a song that is not only still one of the GOAT-level R&B jams but also doubles as a viable and legitimate Black Jeopardy question in various form: “What and where was Usher at 7 o’clock on the dot?” Or “What time was, specifically, was Usher cruising the streets in a drop-top?”
This song is, of course, “Nice & Slow.” That song is over 20 years old and is still as much of a jam today as it was then. And then, of course, you have what I believe to be arguably Usher’s greatest song of all time, The Neptunes produced jam, “U Don’t Have to Call”—from his 2001 8701 album—a song so good that it almost convinced a 21-year-old Panama Jackson to buy a banded collar brown leather jacket and some Heelys so I could bust out my video-dance moves on-demand and wow any crowd that would, of course, assemble around me to witness my greatness. Greatness I only attained from hopefully attempting to copy Usher.
Just as a point of note, I won’t be mentioning all of Usher’s hits because he has too many to name. Too. Many.
And of course, the most feather in the cap feather in a cap that ever did exist, in March 2004, Usher unleashed the last, truly landmark R&B album, with Confessions, an album SO timeless that if he released it today I think it would still be a huge album (though nothing is as big as albums were in the late ’90s and early aughts). Usher performed “Superstar” from that album at the Tiny Desk and I was very pleased because “Superstar” has long been one of my absolute favorite records of his, sampling “Mack’s Stroll/The Getaway” from Willie Hutch’s 1973 soundtrack for The Mack.
You know what I think makes Usher such a legend? It’s the fact that Usher is still actively relevant today, with a Las Vegas residency, able to still headline festivals (like Something In The Water) and comes in nearly every R&B conversation with regularity and his most crowning achievement is almost two decades old. Since the release of Confessions, he has had very good records, but no album has come even close to resonating or landing the same way as Confessions. He’s had monster jams like “OMG” and songs that reminded you of just how much of a talent he is like the Diplo-produced, “Climax.” Now maybe, nothing ever could come close to impacting the social consciousness the same way, but it’s just a point of note. How many artists are able to be so resonant and so impactful almost 20 years after their biggest and most well-known project came out?
And similarly, Usher stepping onto that Tiny Desk stage seemingly like he was literally performing songs that could have come out yesterday speaks volumes about his cultural stickiness and importance. Usher matters as much today for R&B’s landscape as he did back in the mid-’90s when he showed up as a teenager finding his way. Perhaps Usher isn’t leading, perhaps, leading the R&B charge nowadays, having influenced the past two generations of artists in various ways, but he is as commanding of space and time as any. Which artist wouldn’t love to grace the stage with Usher and hit dance numbers and sing any of his songs with him or in tribute to him?
It’s interesting: I’m not entirely sure what one does to qualify to become an R&B (I suppose soul goes in here, too) legend. Folks like Aretha and Marvin and Stevie come to mind immediately, but I think when it’s all said and done, Usher will be part of those conversations, and amongst contemporaries, he is absolutely a legend. He also roller skates really, really well.
That Tiny Desk concert was just a reminder of what he has done and how even songs that are 25 years old are as good, if not better, than what’s out here today.
That man is a superstar. And he is a legend.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).
Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.
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