Good for the eyes, okay for the ears, but Usher still has a ways to go

by Ryan Snyder

As great as MichaelJackson was on stage andrecord, the candid momentsthroughout his filmographyshowed just whatan improbably inspiredindividual he was. As apop dancer, he was withoutpeer. Even the fluidity,gracefulness and timingof his every movement inThis Is It — a film in whichan emaciated Jackson wasallegedly mailing in his effort — was breathtaking,almost alien-looking. As an arranger andbandleader, his ear for his music was beyondreproach. His gentle correction of bass playerAlex Al during tour opener “Wanna Be Startin’Something” epitomized the clarity and candorof his creative vision. As an artist, he was theParagon of Pop, working obsessively to temperthe entertainment business’s greatest skill set.Michael Jackson wasn’t trying to fi ll anyone’sshoes. So why is Usher so infatuated with fillingMJ’s? An even better question though is:Why does he think he can? He’s only just past the midway point of thefi rst leg of his massive OMG World Tour, but theR&B megastar’s performance at the GreensboroColiseum on Dec. 7 showed a man, like his yogiin This Is It, looking weary and complacent.He seemed to retreat behind his vocal trackswhen the intricate dance routines with his ninepersonback-up crew became too demanding.He never broke script the few times he engagedthe audience, going line for line with the samebanter he’s deployed in most every other city.Whenever things were going slow,as they invariably did duringhis uneven two-hourshow, Usher prodded the9,000-strong, predominantlyfemale crowd’s libido byshowing a little ab at timesand completely de-shirtingmore than once. Still, it mightnot be appropriatetopin Usher’sseeminglydiminishedenthusiasm onfatigue. Usher,first dressed intactical commandogear andthen in severaleras of MJ attire, looked to be in incredibleshape. If it is indeed Usher’s ambition to bethe heir apparent to the throne of pop, he’sdoing little to separate himself from other wannabesbased on his current output. At age 32,Michael Jackson was coming off of a stringof legendary albums, while Usher’s recentnumber one album Raymond vs. Raymond isa regression into cold commercialism builton listless, desperate sex jams, widely pannedin reviews, and hismomentum-sustainingEP Versus is comprisedof its castoffs. His live performance,though, does haveits moments. Opener“Monstar” saw himarrive from behind thecrowd on a movingplatform as the song’sintro played on. After atiming miscue left himmomentarily bobbingin the air, Usher descended to the stage in aMatrix-y space walk as dancers fl ooded frombackstage. The groove awkwardly shiftedfrom the dubstep-pop hybrid of “Monstar” tothe brassy jungle boogie of album mate “SheDon’t Know,” but what came next was a bit ofa shock. Few artists, if any, have had a hit inthe last decade as big as “Yeah!,” and it onlyseems logical to play the ace when it’s mostneeded. Yet, three songs into the show, Usherstares down the audience for an uncomfortabletwo minute span and unleashes thesong that, in 2004, embedded itselfinto the brain of every club-goer foran entire year. Usher discarded hispop-warrior façade fora red leather jacketand black pantsreminiscent ofJackson circaThriller, as hedipped into8701 for “URemindMe” anda passionatelyrendered“U Don’tHave to Call,”arguably theheight ofthe setsave for the choreographed power-tool foolery.From there, though, the show went into a bit ofa tailspin. “Not too long ago I paid tribute to one of thegreatest entertainers that ever lived. I’m just wonderingif you guys would mind if I did it againtonight?” Usher asked, as a pair of glittery moonboots came in via conveyor belt. “Do I have yourpermission to fi ll his shoes?”As smooth as Usher was on stage at times,his musicless dance tribute to the King of Pop’smemory merely appeared labored and discomfited in comparison — a reminder of what animprobably high bar Jackson has set. As the show bounced back and forth betweenMy Way (without ever performing the hit titletrack) and his 2010 output, Usher’s loverboyshtick grew increasingly tiresome as the setbegged for a spark. While it would have beenan ideal spot for “Yeah!” to jog the room’senergy level, at least “Burn” revisited Usher’smore incisive, romantic side for a moment. Theshow went heavy on the visuals from there,including blinding pyro for “Caught Up” andfuturistic neon streaks on the LED screen forthe surprisingly good “DJ Got Us Fallin’ InLove” that recalled classicTron effects. Thestage was fl ooded with fog and the star bathedin light after a video intro by famed disc jockeyFatman Scoop for show closer “OMG.” It wasan inspired effort to close, but possibly all fornaught as the crowd, disappointing in size tobegin with, had dwindled by a third in the last20 minutes. Though not much of an innovator, Usher hasfashioned himself into a relatively skilled appropriator,which made his repeated stabs at usurpingJackson’s legacy feel wanton and imprudent.There was a time in his career that it appearedUsher might have been able to carry the torch ofarguably the greatest solo artist and entertainerthe world has ever known. At this point though,he’s moved well past that crossroads, choosingthe path of the entertainer over that of the artist.