With a hit Las Vegas residency and a viral performance, the R&B star won the year
It’s hard to deny that Usher had one hell of a year. Nearly 30 years after his debut album dropped, 2022 was an unexpected, but well-deserved, victory lap for one of the true kings of R&B.
While many were debating whether R&B was dead, Usher almost single-handedly proved the genre was not only alive, but thriving. The singer experienced his own “renaissance” (shout out to Beyoncé) this year. He returned to Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, thanks to the City Girls’ bouncy “Good Love.” The feature was his 52nd charting single, and his first since Summer Walker’s 2019 smash “Come Thru.” He delivered an electric set at Pharrell’s Something In The Water festival in DC. Weaving in and out of his vast collection of hits, the performance was a masterclass. And his Las Vegas residency has been so popular, it’s been extended multiple times.
But if there was a singular moment that highlighted Usher’s dominance in 2022, his Tiny Desk performance was just that. Like MTV Unplugged for the generation prior, NPR’s Tiny Desk series features stripped down musical offerings from some of the top artists in the world. People like Jazmine Sullivan, Mac Miller, T-Pain, Anderson .Paak, Erykah Badu, Adele and more have all graced NPR’s Washington, D.C. office, which, for a little while, transforms into one of the most magical stages in pop culture. Usher’s performance, which capped off Black Music Month back in June, was a mix of emotions from sensual, comical, open and revealing.
“I’m really happy to be able to celebrate all of the years of music. I’m really happy to be able to share,” Usher told the intimate crowd during the performance. “I think that if life has taught us anything it is that we should share with each other, not just the music. Life is a collaborative process and being able to lift each other up, stand with each other, is all it’s really about.”
Usher’s accolades are plentiful. Since his self-titled debut dropped in 1994, he’s released eight studio albums — four platinum albums, and one certified diamond album in Confessions. He’s won eight Grammy awards, four BET awards, had four albums hit number one on the Billboard Hot 200 chart, has sold out shows around the globe, and was named one of the top artists of the decade in 2009. Usher’s Tiny Desk concert showcased an artist who’s comfortable in his superstardom. One who’s proud of his catalog but even more moved by how his music connects to the people responsible for making him a star. The Tiny Desk performance also officially laid to rest any lingering talk of wanting to see Usher in a Verzuz setting. It solidified an unassailable truth: Aside from Usher, there is no other contemporary male R&B artist with the combination of vocals, catalog, showmanship and presence.
“He stands alone as the leading male R&B artist of that period,” Vogue Wilborn, a music and culture commentator, said of Usher’s run in the 2000s. “And he’s still outperforming most artists around him physically and vocally. The only comparison I could make is Beyoncé — someone who matured within the framework of their already unbelievable, universal skill.”
Usher’s Tiny Desk performance also had an immediate impact on the culture. A sign of its infectiousness was incorporating the #SuperstarChallenge where people from across the globe attempted to recreate the opening of his 2004 ballad “Superstar.” During the show, Usher said he was proud of how the social media sensation brought people together. He was also humbled that a song he made nearly 20 years ago continued to have such a connection to people today.
“It was an incredible display at a time when people are brazenly claiming ‘R&B is dead’ on the internet,” said Wilborn. “It’s true, the genre has morphed in a couple of different directions in modern times. But if with no one else, R&B lives with Usher and as long as we have him, we have something to look forward to.”
The impact of his performance proved deeper than hashtags, too. In the five months since his performance, it’s been viewed over 13 million times. Streams for “Confessions Pt. II” — thanks in part to Usher’s “Watch This” meme — increased nearly 50 percent. Whereas the aforementioned “Superstar,” the apex of the performance, saw an explosion of 238 percent. And, per Billboard, his discography saw streams catapult from 4.1 million to 5.6 million — with Confessions reintroducing itself to the Billboard 200. Oh, and the Las Vegas residency became even more of a hot ticket.
The show, which first began in 2021, has been described as a “commemoration of Usher’s career, and the love fans have for him.” Usher’s residency has become a pilgrimage for music lovers of a certain age. It’s proven itself to be an event that’s rooted in personal connection through lived experiences because, at its core, that has always been the strength of Usher’s music. To be in attendance is one thing. To find different parts of yourself in the performance is an entirely different emotional experience. Just ask Insecure creator Issa Rae, who was wholly smitten when Usher serenaded her on stage during an October performance.
“There’s not a single person I know who went to the show who didn’t get on social media, begging everyone else to buy a ticket,” said Wilborn. “Everything about the audience’s reaction, and the addition of an entirely new set of shows, tells me that it’s legendary.”
Usher won in 2022 simply by being himself. In the long, complex history of Black music, Usher’s place in the culture is both undeniable and fascinating to dissect. A career spanning nearly 30 years is sure to come with shifts in sounds and sonic meeting points. And Usher’s tried almost everything — successfully more times than not — from classic R&B and pop, to Electronic Dance Music. And while Black music is, in my opinion, any art made by a Black person, Usher’s place in the R&B pantheon isn’t always talked about enough, likely due to his willingness to switch it up from time to time.
“Ultimately, though, I think it makes [him] a stronger artist. When we sit down and look at Usher’s musical contributions, we’ll be able to trace his body of work a little more closely to soul elements and pop theatrics — the Michael Jacksons, Luther Vandrosses [or] the James Browns,” said Wilborn. “We all look at them as one of a kind. I know we’ll talk about Usher with the same tone one day.”
Here’s a 2022 confession — we already should be.
Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.
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