Usher, fresh off his opening of the previous evening’s “Video Music Awards” show, utilized a dizzying array of hydraulic lifts, grand staircases, towering screens, dancers, pyrotechnics, an inexhaustible wardrobe and, yes, a surprisingly solid song catalog to satisfy the near-capacity audience.
Along the way, Usher staked his claim as one of hip-hop’s most reliable live acts. With the success of his top-selling “Confessions” album, Usher has claimed the mantle of pop deity that his own idol, Michael Jackson, wore for generations. Usher’s catalog, while neatly ensconced in “safe” pop/R&B territory, plumbs matters of lust (“You Make Me Wanna”), intimacy (“Nice and Slow,”), straight crunk (“Yeah”) and sensitivity (“Confessions”).
His honesty and obvious knowledge of his audience’s love affair was in abundance. On “U Got It Bad,” Usher tore off his shirt (revealing, of course, a well-chiseled body), whirled around and dropped to his knees — a la James Brown — sending the multitude into a frenzy with those calculated moves.
During “Superstar,” Usher prowled the stage in search of a lover from the audience. He took his time, milking the moment as he eyed the throng of available hotties, and selected a girl who seemed unfazed by the jealous stares from the unchosen. She fell into Usher’s routine with aplomb, even as he “threw” her onto a couch and seduced her with roses and song. Usher ended the evening with the raucous “Yeah,” a tune that, so far, is the lead contender for song of the year.
Kanye West, dressed ever so preppy in a salmon cream colored summer suit, is this year’s rap darling — the opposite of last year’s gangsta-rap pin-up star, 50 Cent. West earned a reputation for crafting sample-laden hits for Jay-Z, Ludacris and others. His “The College Drop-Out” album has thrust him into star status by combining elements that, ordinarily, would never be accepted in a gangsta dominated field. West danced (not too over the top, mind you) and combined gospel, hip-hop and soul in an effort to prove that one can be a showman and maintain street credibility.
Christina Milian opened with a brief two-song set, including “Pop That Thing,” that did little to improve her reputation as a minor-league Beyonce. Milian blended in with two dancers who not only looked like her, but were dressed in outfits extremely similar to hers, breaking the mandate that an artist should stand out from everyone else onstage.