Am I the only one who thinks Usher is an asshole? I certainly held the minority opinion last Sunday at Philips Arena, where a capacity crowd gathered for a stop on the R&B superstar’s national tour. This 26-year-old hometown hero is experiencing the biggest success of his career with a batch of tunes that chronicle his misadventures as a spoiled, philandering cad. It has given the former good guy some needed bad boy edge, but it has come at the cost of his integrity. After all, no matter how nicely the sentiment is sung, cheating on your lover is still a pretty fucked up thing to do.
Few were sweating that, however, as Usher blasted onstage, (insert your own pyrotechnic sound here), wearing a sparkling white suit and singing “Caught Up,” one of the jauntier numbers from his new album, Confessions. He was flanked by a small battalion of dancers, who earned every taxable cent of whatever their bossman is paying them. The model-pretty women shook, shimmied, and dropped it like it’s hot, and the guys did their damnedest to prove that hip-hop dancing should be an Olympic sport.
But none of that took attention away from Usher. His voice, while well trained, lacks distinction, but he knows how to move. He went from sharp, militaristic twitches to smooth, beatific glides, from speedy rolls across the stage (think the propulsive opposite of the backward Moonwalk) to static b-boy handstands. Looking at Usher dance is like watching Serena Williams swing a tennis racket or Michael Phelps move across a pool. It’s the wonder of seeing someone in such keen control of their body, doing things that would strain most of us to even dream about.
The material Usher performed, thankfully, spanned his entire 11-year career. That gave the show more emotional nuance and range than is evident on the new album. Until recently, Usher presented himself as the heartthrob with heart. He had a novel vulnerability in an age of hip-hop gangstas and R&B thugs. The night included the best of these tunes: “U Got It Bad,” on which he’s so whipped that he stops hanging with his boys; “U Remind Me,” which finds him so devastated he can’t even date a woman who looks like his ex; and “U Don’t Have to Call” (yes, he’s a little narcissistically obsessed with the “U”), which has him finally mustering up the courage to go to a nightclub following a bitter breakup.
But on his new album, Confessions — which incidentally sold more than 1 million copies its first week of release — Usher has transformed from sad sack to dick. The first single “Yeah!,” which musically is a nice pairing of airy Atlanta crunk with a skittering, slightly sinister R&B melody, sees Usher getting all hot and humpy on the dancefloor with one of his girlfriend’s best pals. The cut features a zippy rap by Ludacris and some nearly unintelligible rantings from Lil Jon, both of whom showed up Sunday night to help their boy out. (Other VIPs in attendance: Janet Jackson and her boyfriend and longtime Usher collaborator, Jermaine Dupri, and singer Monica, who briefly joined Usher onstage for some mock seduction. “Let the rumors begin,” Usher joked.)
When Usher sang another of his recent hits, the ballad “Confessions Part II,” he ripped off his shirt to bare his abs while revealing that he had been creeping around with some other woman who was now expecting his child. These kinds of stories have long been a part of R&B in that “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right” kind of way. But the problem with Usher is that he doesn’t seem to be torn by what he’s doing. He’s not struggling with demons like Al Green or Marvin Gaye. Usher screws around simply because it’s a fringe benefit of being pretty and paid. On “Burn,” another cut from the new album, he ends a longtime relationship, basically, because he’s gotten bored. “The party ain’t jumpin’ like it used to,” he explains.
What’s incredible is that when he sang that song at Philips, thousands of young female fans were singing along with him. He’s becoming more endearing, not less. Of course, part of that has to do with the whole good girl/bad boy attraction. Every teary-eyed sista in the place thinks she would be the one to make him settle down — yeah, right.
But there’s more to it. Even Usher’s lame-ass excuses for cheating and ending relationships can seem cathartic in a dating world where guys often disappear without so much as a phone call, returned e-mail, or well-placed Post-It. Usher’s new songs at least give his brokenhearted fans some symbolic closure, and their devotion is the price they pay just to find out what a guy is thinking.