Usher first rose to pop prominence in the late ’90s, finding mainstream success in an industry that was still drawing large-scale profits from both record sales and touring ventures. More than a decade later, the effortlessly charming R&B songsmith seems unchanged in his commercial approach — elaborate stage shows, expensive music videos, radio-friendly singles — and the music-buying public continues to respond authoritatively. In many ways, Usher is more commercially viable as an artist now than at any other time in his career.
To no large surprise, Thursday evening’s Staples Center performance was packed with a high constituency of female fans, consistently spanning the divide between pre-teens and middle-aged women. Musically, Usher has remained savvy in adopting sonic trends and blending them with classic pop song structures. He still delivers the club anthems, the slow jams and the sugary pop hooks, but they are reliably wrapped in the digitized trends of the moment.
Usher entered the arena to fireworks, suspended on a steel platform, and engaged in a series of anti-gravity stunts as the platform landed perpendicular to the stage. Early on, the sound was problematic and the lead vocal was drowned out by the manic pulse of his 5-piece live band.
Shifting from new material to his club-friendly mega-hit, “Yeah,” Usher established a trend of emphasizing dance over vocal performance that would carry through the rest of the night. Much of the song was lead by a backing vocal track, while Usher broke-off crisp dance moves and gyrated to the delight, and high-pitched shrieks, of his female base.
The crucial lead-vocal parts and melodic hooks — established so powerfully in his recorded catalogue — were consistently omitted by the singer and it deflated moments that could have used an extra trill or melismatic push for greater effect. At times, Usher certainly seemed to be conserving energy and his lack of urgency as a performer tempered the overall emotional impact of the show. He is a consummate professional, showing full mastery of both voice and body, but it would have been rewarding to see him let loose a bit and tap into a rawer, more basic side of his onstage persona.
The set list spanned Usher’s entire career, delivering both early hits (“U Make Me Wanna, “Nice & Slow,” “U Remind Me”) and some of his more recent successes (“Love In This Club,” “There Goes My Baby,” “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)”).
The show was capped with an extended rendition of “OMG” featuring Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, who added some vocal grit to the strangely monolithic verses.
Opener Trey Songz benefited from a surprisingly stronger sound mix and a simpler stage show that relied more on his stoic charisma and powerful voice than choreography and ornamental glitz. His performance was focused and highly sexualized, sprinkling dashes of R. Kelly and Marvin Gaye with contemporary hip-hop beats.