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Super Bowl LVIII is Usher's show

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to the Super Bowl, where a beloved singer will be taking center stage on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEAH!")

USHER: Peace up. A-Town down.

SHAPIRO: Usher, the chart-topping singer/songwriter, will be this year's halftime performer. It's his first time on stage at the Super Bowl since a guest appearance in 2011. So how will he squeeze 30 years of music into just 13 minutes? NPR music editor Sheldon Pearce is here to talk about it. Hey there.

SHELDON PEARCE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's Usher been up to these days?

PEARCE: Well, you know, Usher's stock is way up right now. It's sort of interesting. In the late 2010s, he was kind of just hanging around. He had a 2018 collaboration he released with the rap producer Zaytoven that felt pretty low-stakes and didn't quite land...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY AT HOME")

USHER: (Rapping) Till you been driving me crazy, till you been driving me crazy, who you been texting daily? Who you been texting daily?

PEARCE: ...And in 2019, he returned to his swiveling chair on "The Voice."

But post-pandemic, he has seen a bit of a resurgence. He had a viral moment right here at the Tiny Desk in 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR VIDEO)

USHER: Watch this.

(LAUGHTER)

USHER: (Singing) Just when I thought I said all I can say, my chick on the side say she got one on the way. These are my confessions...

PEARCE: And he's been doing this residency in Las Vegas that has been really, really successful, and he had another stint in Paris. He just dropped an album ahead of this Super Bowl performance, and it almost feels like it exists primarily to bolster that performance.

SHAPIRO: What's the response to the new album been so far?

PEARCE: I think it's been pretty positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOP")

USHER: (Singing) Don't let this turn into a bop. Mi amor, ti adore - can't get you off my mind. I think about you all the time. Some days I lay in the dark and stay in the blind.

PEARCE: It's kind of what you would expect from Usher - this supreme display of professionalism and polish. It explores a lot of the familiar Usher modes, but with great skill - sort of running the gamut as a R&B masterclass. And since much of modern R&B is about vibes and atmosphere, it can be refreshing to hear a seasoned artist be so, like, craft-focused. At the center is the club-adjacent pop R&B he has trafficked in throughout the late stages of his career and with songs like "Keep On Dancing," which feels both sort of retro and modern at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON DANCIN'")

USHER: (Singing) When the music goes off and the DJ's going home, get back out on that floor and keep on dancing. Got to keep on dancing. Even if the music stops...

PEARCE: Lyrics that speak directly to Usher's ethos of staying out on the dance floor as a metaphor for persevering through a turbulent romance - it all feels deeply connected to everything he's done up to this point.

SHAPIRO: Every Super Bowl performance is a little bit different, contains some surprises. Any guesses of what we should expect from Usher's?

PEARCE: Well, you know, I wouldn't be surprised to see Usher at least sort of test the waters for some of this new music, especially with a world tour coming up later this year. But I think his set will lean heavily on sort of the classics of his early discography. I wouldn't expect anything crazily groundbreaking - probably more in the realm of dramatic displays of virtuosity. He has a history of sort of connecting with the music of past entertainers. He's performed with James Brown, with Michael Jackson. At the 2020 Grammys, he did a tribute performance in the role of Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF 62ND GRAMMY AWARDS BROADCAST)

USHER: (Singing) Don't have to be beautiful to turn me on.

PEARCE: So I do expect whatever he does to connect his legacy work with that of Black pop music in general.

SHAPIRO: Well, give us your predictions. What do you think is going to happen on Sunday?

PEARCE: Well, you know, I can't imagine a world in which he doesn't do "Yeah!" So maybe he brings out Lil Jon and Ludacris with him.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEAH!")

USHER: (Rapping) Yeah.

LIL JON: (Rapping) Hey, hey, Luda (ph).

USHER: (Rapping) Yeah.

LUDACRIS: (Rapping) Watch out, my outfit's ridiculous. In the club looking so conspicuous...

PEARCE: And maybe there's an Alicia Keys duet in the works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BOO")

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) I was there...

ALICIA KEYS AND USHER: (Singing) And you were my baby.

USHER: (Singing) It started when we were younger - you were mine.

PEARCE: But I really do think it'll play strongly off the Las Vegas residency, which - those sets leaned into him being sort of this grown and sexy performer - you know, super fit, abs out, gyrating, some level of theatricality, maybe pyrotechnics, backup dancers and the like. But he has also said that he wants to connect with and honor artists in this performance, and the Vegas residency did see him bringing out R&B performers across eras - Keith Sweat, Teddy Riley, Robin Thicke, Faith Evans and Ashanti, even - so perhaps there is something in store that puts his music in conversation with the broader R&B legacy. I think, in either case, he plans to put the typical glitz and pageantry of Vegas on full display.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Sheldon Pearce, thanks a lot.

PEARCE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DJ GOT US FALLIN' IN LOVE")

USHER: (Singing) Cause baby, tonight, the DJ got us falling in love again - in love again. Yeah, baby, tonight, the DJ got us falling in love again - in love again. So dance, dance, like it's the last, last night of your life, life, gon' (ph) get you right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sheldon Pearce