Rhythm and blues and pop star Usher told cheering fans Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that he wanted his Essence Festival show to be, in part, a career retrospective. “For tonight, I want to celebrate 23 years of music,” he said.
Usher was the closing act in a star-studded Saturday lineup that also included Super Bowl halftime sensation Missy Elliott, the earnest rapper Common and a cool Erykah Badu.
Performing with a small band, a disc jockey and two occasional female dancers, Usher launched his first Essence Festival show since 2011 with “OMG.”
In the song, an international dance hit from 2010, he plays the part of a young man who experiences love at first sight when he sees a woman on the dance floor “popping, dropping, dropping low.”
As any Usher fan knows, he has plenty of moves as well. He showed off some of them during the R&B ballad “Love in This Club.”
The singer and his lead guitarist moved to the edge of the stage for a theatrical mix of guitar soloing and dance steps straight from the Michael Jackson playbook.
Jackson’s musical influence appeared in songs as well, as recently as Usher’s 2014 singles “Good Kisser” and “She Came to Give It to You.”
But the 36-year-old Usher, in his talent, look and material, is his own artist.
Taking the tempo down but turning up the emotion, he moved to his almost eerily high falsetto for a passionate performance of “Climax.” The song and the singer’s nakedly vulnerable performance drew one of the biggest responses of the night.
It was the Fourth of July, and Usher, without saying a word, made a political statement via the T-shirt and leather jacket he wore.
A printed question filled the back of the jacket: “Have we truly achieved our independence?” And the front of his T-shirt featured a crossed-out “July Fourth” and, in black letters below, “Juneteenth,” the holiday that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Saturday’s Essence performers included the New Orleans singer Tonya Boyd-Cannon, jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding and the effortlessly cool, musically hip Erykah Badu on the main stage.
Festival organizers cut off hip-hop artist Missy Elliott after an hour when her set ran long. It seemed an apt ending for a show that started on a dim stage and never seemed to gain momentum. Still, the Dome was filled with excited fans, ready to dance and to give the charismatic singer all their love.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Elliott was on the cutting edge of hip-hop, pop, dance and video. She seemed to disappear around 2005. However, when Katy Perry brought Elliott on stage during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, she stole the show, and the world collectively wondered where she’d been.
Afterward, she revealed that she’d spent many of the intervening years dealing with Graves’ disease, which attacks the thyroid and makes working difficult.
Saturday night, Elliott played her first concert since 2008, but it didn’t go quite as planned. Organizers cut the sound and lights when she ran over her 60-minute limit, leaving the singer silent and in the dark.
She didn’t receive her final applause until after Usher’s show, at nearly 1 a.m., when Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks brought Elliott back onstage and said her set was cut off early and therefore she had not gotten proper acknowledgment for her performance.
During the show, Elliott revisited her 1997 debut album “Supa Dupa Fly,” and the audience roared with excitement when she started “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “Sock It 2 Me.”
But she didn’t take either to a satisfying length, quickly cutting one off to start another. It wasn’t until a costume change and a full-length version of “Get Ur Freak On” that the Essence audience broke loose to dance.
It was hard to be mad at Elliott, whose broad smile throughout the show was engaging, as was her exuberant belief in herself.
Still, when she felt that her dancers weren’t getting enough attention, she interrupted the show and, after a few confused moments, revisited the ending of the song she had just finished — “Pass That Dutch” — to draw attention to their efforts. Throughout, it felt like Elliott envisioned a much-deserved celebration of Missy-ness, and the crowd seemed to want that too.
Grammy-winning rapper Common was far more reliable.
The upstanding, high-minded and earnest rapper radiates “good husband.” Dressed stylishly in suede Nikes, black jeans and a designer white baseball jacket, Common still looked more like a cool high school history teacher than a star.
He freestyled an impressive verse to a woman he brought out of the audience as an introduction to “Come Close,” his 2002 duet with Mary J. Blige. “You help me to discover me” he rapped as she sat on a stool, but his propriety made his efforts to theatrically romance her and dance with her seem stiff and awkward.
Songs from his 2005 Kanye West-produced album “Be” dominated the set and presented his social-realist rhymes shaded by the emotional complexity of late ’60s and early ’70s soul.
When Common concluded with “Glory,” the Grammy- and Oscar-winning theme from the movie “Selma,” he followed the line “That’s why we walked through Ferguson with our hands up” with “That’s why we walked through Baltimore with our hands up,” underscoring the renewed sense of a struggle for civil rights.
The moment’s power was palpable.
Alex Rawls contributed to this story.