“Let me take you to a place nice and quiet,” Usher sang on “Nice and Slow” halfway through an hour-and-a-half headlining set at Key Arena Wednesday night. “Nice” was all taken care of – and “nasty” got equal time, with Usher playing the roles of both sweet lover and triple-X seducer – but the Key was the furthest thing from quiet. The screams of thousands of lust-crazed female fans surged at every hip thrust and low croon, shaking the arena’s foundations in a way even last year’s 6.8 magnitude quake couldn’t touch.
Boasting more outfit changes than Cher, the R&B star rocked it all, from a crystal-studded black tank with long leather shorts to flowy white pajamas and even denims with rhinestone-encrusted shoes that would make Michael Jackson’s glove cry tears of jealousy. Glimpses of Usher’s birthday suit, though, were by far the most popular look of the night.
Kicking off with “I Don’t Know” and sprinkling the early part of his set with slow-burn jams like “If I Want To” off his latest, 8701, Usher acted as the eye of a sexed-up storm, surrounded by dancers who gyrated and moved up and down a stripper’s pole with skills not learned at Arthur Murray.
Backed by a live band as well as some helpful DAT tapes, the artist kept his voice strong and sweet even through the most aerobic dance moves. Standing in place as the last notes of the emotional “Can’t Let U Go” played out, he ripped his already-shredded shirt off his sweat-beaded body with one swift movement, causing the collective temperature of the room to go up several degrees.
Then he exited for yet another costume change as a video showed him and one of his dancers engaging in a dance seduction, fading to black just in PG-13 time. Next, donning a white fedora and coat, Usher emerged for “Bedtime” and “Nice and Slow.” The latter found him searching the crowd for “the perfect girl,” finally selecting one lucky lady and leading her to a king-size bed on the stage for a little one-on-one serenade. After handing her a gift box – thoughtfully filled with a pair of thong panties and tour T-shirt – he ignited some figurative fireworks as the pair engaged in a little horizontal dirty dancing. As she was sent off with a kiss and the stage darkened, real fireworks erupted overhead.
The bedroom antics were set aside for a tough-talking “My Way,” though the loverman returned for “You Make Me Wanna…,” dropping trou at the end before changing into full denims for “U Remind Me.”
Leading the crowd in a “U Don’t Have to Call” sing-along, Usher quickly grew more sober as he asked the audience to remember loved ones they had lost, flashing the names of the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Aaliyah and the recently deceased Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes on an overhead screen as he segued into Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” After introducing his band and dancers, he got the crowd to flash peace and love signs.
Though there were also shout-outs to fallen comrades Tupac and Biggie, there was far less peace in the air for Nas’ set, which preceded the headliner. He asked audience members to make very different gestures with their hands, from pointed guns to middle fingers, even the “black power” fist.
The King of Queensbridge proved he was Stillmatic, performing new material like the emphatic “One Mic,” I Am’s saucy “KI-SS-ING” and passionate “Hate Me Now,” It Was Written’s “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” with a sampled Lauryn Hill, and Illmatic’s “The World Is Yours” before bringing out the “battle sh-” and showing the stuff that took down Jay-Z earlier this year. Greed Decade classics like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” all got their time on the DJ’s rotation, but the crowd seemed to know Nas’ lyrics nearly as well as they knew the ’80s oldies. The rapper rarely sang alone.
Biggie widow Faith Evans opened, looking ready for prime time in a denim corset and spiky auburn updo, though her artfully stitched jeans looked like they’d had a bad run-in with some Silly String. With her gospel-caliber voice and full Motown-style backup vocals, the first lady of Bad Boy filled up the arena, though she comes off much stronger laying the smackdown on a dishonest man, as on her hit “You Gets No Love,” than mouthing the stock lyrics of her slower numbers, either pining for or praising yet another lover. Best to leave the praising to Usher, who’s made a multiplatinum career out of knowing just what the ladies like to hear.