How Usher evolved into a new kind of sex symbol

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Usher is one of the only artists I can say I truly grew up with: He’s been in the music industry for 25 years and I’m now 25. The first time I saw him in concert, I had to close my eyes. He pulled down his pants during the end of “Nice and Slow” to reveal his Tommy Hilfiger boxers and my mom wasn’t having it. I was eight. The second time I saw him in concert, I was 14, fully immersed in sex education but not fully aware of what sex appeal was. All I knew was that every time Usher flashed his infectious smile and moved his hips, I squealed, and when he invited a woman from the audience on stage to be serenaded to “Superstar,” I wanted to be her—or the shirt that Usher ripped off his body and threw into the crowd.

At both of these shows, I was entranced by the way that Usher—one of the greatest R&B sex symbols in the past 20 years, paving the way for Chris Brown, Trey Songz and Justin Bieber—used sex as a major part of his image. But in order for a sex symbol to have longevity, to be appreciated for all his gifts, fans have to feel connected on a deeper level than just their physical desire for him. Dry-humping a woman from the audience, while entertaining, isn’t exactly going to do the trick. Intimacy is the foundation for any long-term relationship, including the ones between the pop stars and their fans. It’s the ability to make a concert feel like a studio jam session, to make a 20,000 seat stadium feel cozy, and to make any given person in the audience feel like it’s just you and them. At the Roots Picnic, Usher reminded us that he was indeed an artist.

I saw Usher for the fourth time last Saturday at the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia, but it was different. Backed by the Roots, Usher stripped away the complicated stage productions and insanely technical dance routines that have sometimes overshadowed his charismatic essence on previous tours.


Instead, Usher gave the crowd a raw, powerful performance. He didn’t need to serenade one person because it felt like he was serenading us all.

Last year, Usher tried a similar approach in his appearance at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, with just a few dancers and a live band, but something about that performance felt off. It may have been the dance moves, which felt more lazy than minimalist, or rapper Wale obnoxiously riding in on a hoverboard.

I can’t say that my expectations were high for his performance at the Roots Picnic— I was just going because I grew up with him, and because this was a moment of nostalgia not to be missed. But then Usher blew my mind. For nearly three hours, I was captivated by every move he made and every note he sang. His ample talents, rather than his sexiness, were the star—although I did still feel things every time he smiled. It was his own version of MTV Unplugged.

This was Usher's way of saying: In case you forgot, I have hits. I have eight Grammys. I’ve danced with MJ. I can play the conga drums and the piano. I’m funny (he played a clip from The Boondocks where the character Tom sings “Burn” as he performed the song onstage). I know my heritage ("he flashed a sign that said ‘Usher Is Still Haitian" and wore a Muhammad Ali shirt). Don't ever forget.


And while Usher gave us intimacy, the Roots gave us a new sound. Beloved Usher songs from the past 20 years were mixed with Afrobeat, soul, and funk flair from Questlove and the band, while Black Thought dropped verses that made us wonder why every Usher song didn't have a rap feature. They seamlessly blended together hits like "Break You Off" and "Nice And Slow" and "You Got It Bad" and "Adore." They added conga drums to "You Don't Have To Call" and reggae vibes to "Love In This Club." In an interview with The Fader about preparing for this instantly legendary performance, Questlove said:

For lots of people, it's [Confessions] a touchstone. And it's [Confessions]  a perfectly done album, but that's the thing: it's too perfect. I wanted to muddy it a bit. I wanted no abs. I wanted to take the flash away and simply put him in an environment that was more of a legitimate seventies concert. What if Usher came out in 1973? And in my mind, that shifted the terms a little. It would have been easy to think of Al Green or Marvin Gaye. When most people think of Usher, they think of the sexiness factor, of women oohing and aahing. Here's the thing; he has an amazing voice. I wanted to use that in its pure form.


But in no way did this stripped-down performance mean that Usher has lost that "sexiness factor." Rather, this set showed us what sexiness could look like for a more grown-up, musically challenging Usher—rooted in showcasing his talent without distractions and adding new layers of depth to his discography. Here's to hoping there is a Usher and the Roots live album and tour in store for the future.

Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.

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