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Usher’s path to the Super Bowl: How the ‘hearthrob of R&B’ evolved over a 30-year career

Usher was 15 years old when he released his first album in 1994.

Now, some 30 years later, the R&B singer will perform in his first Super Bowl halftime show. In that time, he has sold over 80 million records worldwide and earned eight Grammys.

Some were taken by surprise by the announcement that Usher would be helming this year’s show, but those who have chronicled Usher’s evolution feel it was a long time coming.

“He is one of the greatest displays of showmanship that we have ever seen,” Nicolas-Tyrell Scott, a London-based music critic, told CNN. “Should it have happened years before? Yes. But is it still happening? Yes. So, it means that he’s a certain category of artist. He’s gold-standard.”

Ask any kid that grew up in the 2000s to recall a song they heard on repeat during their childhood, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear the name Usher.

Over the past three decades, his music has proven a constant in the US Billboard Hot 100. His R&B tunes, pop remixes and collaborations with other artists have kept him part of the conversation and music scene in ways that few artists ever enjoy.

It’s easy to forget that Usher didn’t enjoy immediate success.

His debut album — “Usher,” released in 1994 — barely caught the media’s attention.

Musician Usher (aka Usher Raymond IV) records vocals for the song "U Will Know" on July 26, 1994 in New York City. - Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Musician Usher (aka Usher Raymond IV) records vocals for the song "U Will Know" on July 26, 1994 in New York City. - Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1997, the tables started to turn.

His second album, “My Way,” featuring “You Make Me Wanna,” reached No. 2 on the charts and stayed there for 47 weeks.

Usher honed his art with his 2001 album, “8701,” featuring “U Got It Bad”, which spent six weeks in the top spot on the US Billboard charts. He also won his first Grammy for best male R&B vocal performance for the song “U Remind Me” on the same album.

Usher’s 2004 “Confessions” album was his chef-d’oeuvre, taking home dozens of awards and marking the release of what –- to this day –- remains his most popular song: “Yeah!” a collaboration with Lil Jon and Ludacris.

As R&B started to evolve, and audiences began moving away from the genre in favor of other music styles, Usher adapted – collaborating with Nicki Minaj for the song “Lil Freak,” released on the 2010 “Raymond v. Raymond” album.

That project featured another widely played pop tune, “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love Again,” and the single “OMG,” in which Usher collaborated with will.i.am.

“He kind of melded R&B and pop actually, during this era,” Scott said. But, the critic says, R&B always remains at the core of Usher’s work.

“Usher has always been R&B. There’s not actually been a project which skews out of that terrain in terms of the heart of the project.”

Usher performs at The O2 Arena on February 2, 2011 in London, England. - Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Usher performs at The O2 Arena on February 2, 2011 in London, England. - Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Remaining a staple in an ever-changing music culture is not simple, and Scott says it is a testimony to Usher’s work ethic and creativity that he has found ways to remain relevant with a new generation of listeners, from YouTube to TikTok, a Las Vegas residency and a performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk series.

“He is the heartthrob of R&B,” Scott said.

Usher will have those who came before him top of mind when he hits the stage Sunday, telling Good Morning America, “I think of all the R&B performers who I carry in this moment.”

Indeed, he stands on the shoulders of R&B giants. But for this generation’s giant, there’s no more fitting place than one of the biggest stages there is.

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