BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
If you were looking for an Atlanta hip-hop star Tuesday night, chances are he was hanging out at Philips Arena.
For the past two decades – yes, go ahead feel old – Usher has seduced and enthralled listeners with his slick balladry, club thumpers and face-melting footwork.
Though he was born in Dallas and spent his early years in Chattanooga, he is, for all intents and purposes, an Atlantan. So Tuesday’s almost sold-out concert at Philips Arena could rightfully be considered a homecoming show – and Usher delivered mightily.
“We’re making history here tonight,” he said about halfway through the two-hour-plus career retrospective that featured an airtight band – including a four-piece horn section – and a small pack of dancers to complement his molten moves.
Usher performing in Atlanta – which he last played almost exactly four years ago – meant that this show would be different from the other dates on his “UR Experience” tour.
So how about a surprise guest lineup of Young Jeezy, Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris, Lil Jon, Juicy J, T.I., Young Thug and Rae Sremmurd for something special?
But before this who’s who of hip-hop heaven popped out at various points in the concert, Usher was busy leaving his heart and about 10 pounds of sweat on the stage.
He emerged from a puff of smoke, his red sneakers and omnipresent microphone headset the only things visible, and, after a few pops of pyro, he spun and glided through “My Way” and jogged in place to the bass thuds that propel “OMG.”
Plenty of musical acts possess some dancing skills, but most of them use it to mask other deficiencies, like, perhaps, singing. Usher is the rare breed who excels at both (his longtime vocal coach, “Mama” Jan Smith called him “a remarkable vocal specimen”).
He deftly maneuvered between “You Make Me Wanna…” – brilliantly redesigned with electric guitar and fat horns – and “U Remind Me,” a slow jam brew of liquid soul and dramatic flair.
Proudly displaying his Sugar Ray-worthy biceps and the mini Chia Pet on his chin, Usher frequently detoured into soliloquies about love lost and found, using them as gateways to songs such as the strutting, funky “Twisted.”
His buttery falsetto soared on “Climax” and he thoroughly inhabited the beautifully brokenhearted “Burn.” Of all of Usher’s numerous relationship songs, “Burn” is his most mature proclamation and on this night, a heartfelt sing-along with the audience prompted one of many sincere expressions of gratitude from the singer, who frequently flashed his boyish grin and batted those puppy-dog eyes.
After a brief exit from the stage, Usher returned in a black tank top (which, much to the delight of the ladies in the crowd, he later removed for the rudimentary drum intro he played for “Good Kisser”), a thick gold chain and gilded sneakers and brought his longtime associate Dupri out for a playful romp through “Lemme See” and “Hey Daddy (“Daddy’s Home”) (check out the better-than-nothing video below).
They were soon joined by Lil Jon and Ludacris for, of course, “Lovers and Friends.”
“That’s classic ATL right there,” Usher said after the breezily fun interlude with his comrades.
But the parade of guests wasn’t over yet.
Any time T.I. is on a stage, the electricity in the room is palpable, and his triple shot of “Whatever You Like,” “Fancy,” from protégé Iggy Azalea, and “No Mediocre” threatened to hijack the show, especially when Young Thug burst into the mix. Usher, amusingly, ceded the spotlight to his rapper pals and engaged in some twisting and sliding around the stage while they performed.
But Usher is the consummate smoothie, and he quickly steered the show back into his own territory with “Bad Girl” and the Grammy-nominated “Good Kisser,” an intriguing amalgamation of funk, rap and soul that spotlighted more of his gravity-defying knee bends, sexiness that never devolved into smarminess and a fur hat.
Usher is all about moving forward, and one of these days he’ll finish that new album he’s been teasing. But after a triumphant 20 years in the business, it was both fitting and commendable that, in the city that helped make him a superstar, he saw the value in looking back.