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,” the festival headliner said. “I want to take you back,” he added, mentioning his 2004 album “Confessions,” 2001’s “8701,” and, his 1994 debut, “Usher.”
“For those of you who are my original Usher fans,” the singer-dancer said, “you know what the hell I mean when I say, ‘Spread it out.’ ”
Performing with a small band, a DJ 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, Usher plays the part of a young man who experiences love at first sight when he sees a shorty,” as he calls young women, on the dance floor “popping, dropping, dropping low.”
As any Usher fan knows, he has many moves, too.
Staying in the club mode but also turning more romantic than lustful, Usher showed off some of them during the R&B balladry of “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 Usher steps pulled straight from the Michael Jackson playbook.
While Usher is obviously indebted to Jackson, in dance and music, the late star’s shadow didn’t dominate Usher’s 100-minute Essence Festival show.
It surfaced at certain points, in a sudden turn and spin, for instance, and the high, quick “Whoo!” that Usher sometimes injected between lyrics.
Jackson’s musical influence also appeared in songs as recent as Usher’ 2014 singles “Good Kisser” and “She Came to Give It to You.”
But Usher, in his talent, look and material, is still his own artist.
Taking the tempo down but turning the emotion up, as high it would get all night, Usher 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.
Judging from reviews of Usher’s recent “The UR Experience” tour — which included a December stop at the Smoothie King Center in December — his Essence Festival set was a looser, smaller show than “The UR Experience.”
Usher told the crowd to expect the unexpected. He appeared to be playing things by ear when his DJ began spinning Usher classics about 10 songs into the show. The Essence audience, grooving en masse, happily accepted the pre-recorded tracks of such old favorites as “Confessions” and “I Need a Girl.” In an example of the spontaneous participation that often erupts at Essence concerts, the audience sang for the star.
On national holiday July Fourth, aka Independence Day, Usher, without saying a word, made a political statement via the T-shirt and leather jacket he wore on stage. 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 printed below, “Juneteenth,” the holiday that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
Usher, a 36-year-old performer who’s been a star since he was a teenager, spent some moments expressing his appreciation for Essence magazine. He was raised in the publication’s pages, he said.
Before his final song, performed shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday, Usher thanked Essence attendees from throughout the nation, naming states and cities. He expressed more gratitude for his fans in “Without You,” his 2011 pop-dance collaboration with French DJ David Guetta.
“I can’t win, I can’t reign, I will never win this game, without you,” Usher sang.
Although the hour was late and many in the less-than-capacity Dome crowd had left, “Without You” served as an affectionate farewell from the enduring star.
Saturday’s 16 Essence performances also included a For the Love of R&B Superlounge performance by the New Orleans singer with the remarkably rich, deep vocal register, Tonya Boyd-Cannon; a Hot Right Now Superlounge staging by jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding of her theatrical, jazz-fusion, prog-rock concept show, “Emily’s D+Evolution”; and the effortlessly cool, musically hip Erykah Badu on the main stage.
Essence Festival music in the Superdome continues Sunday with performances by rap star Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and many more.