With sophisticated lighting cues, a 13-piece band and unannounced appearances by established stars (including two local heroes), Usher's performance at the BET Experience wasn't exactly a rejection of spectacle. The R&B singer understands what it takes to move a demanding festival crowd, and Friday night he put that knowledge into action — just one reminder that, at 37, he's been a professional entertainer for more than half his life.
Yet none of that made the concert remarkable. What you thought about as you filed out of Staples Center was probably the same thing folks were thinking as they left the bowling alley in Brooklyn where Usher played an unlikely surprise set with the Roots a few weeks ago: Here was a guy whose pop celebrity has done little to diminish his musical curiosity; ditto the satisfaction he clearly still gets from interacting in real time with a killer groove.
"Tonight is for my OGs," he said not long into the show, a stock pronouncement that Friday seemed actually to communicate something about a commitment to core values.
Over the last few years it's been possible to view Usher's curiosity less generously — to view it as desperation, basically, at a moment when male R&B stars are struggling to find a place in a landscape permanently altered by younger singer-rappers such as Drake and Bryson Tiller, the latter of whom opened Friday's show.
Usher's most recent studio album, the tellingly titled "Looking 4 Myself," came out in 2012, and since then release plans for a follow-up have come and gone several times.
A series of singles found him darting in different directions: hard funk in "Good Kisser"; slick pop in "I Don't Mind"; swarming electronic soul in "Chains," a protest track about police brutality. Just this month he dropped two more in the woozy "No Limit" and the club-minded "Crash."
But if these songs could suggest an identity crisis one by one, Usher's varied moves held together in his sweaty Staples set thanks to his strong singing and his old-fashioned charisma. The music was polished yet alive – the type of spontaneity you don't much get from the likes of Tiller, whose performance felt more like a philosophical argument than an expression of lived emotion.
Indeed, Usher and his band ventured beyond even the considerable diversity of his catalog. They did the dewy slow jams ("Burn," "Nice & Slow") and the uptempo dance cuts ("OMG," "Yeah!"), but they also dramatically remade familiar hits: "Love in This Club," for example, became a reggae song set to the chords of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," while "Throwback" got a shot of Jay Z's "Song Cry."
Usher honored his avowed idol Prince, too, by guiding "U Got It Bad" into a heartfelt rendition of "Adore," the stately closer from "Sign o' the Times."
"Prince has been such an inspiration to my life," he said to a huge cheer from the audience. (A tribute to Prince is expected to be a centerpiece of Sunday night's televised BET Awards.)
Throughout it all, though, Usher maintained his position as the show's focal point, even as he was joined by Snoop Dogg, who drafted Usher to sing Pharrell Williams' part in "Beautiful," and Ice Cube, who strolled onstage to do a verse from "It Was a Good Day" (which samples the same Isley Brothers song as Usher's "One Day You'll Be Mine").
The singer brought out Wale and Young Thug, as well — his way of telling the next generation, perhaps, that his brain and body haven't gone soft yet.
But the youngsters were only learning what the OGs already knew.