HAMPTON, Virginia — After watching "8 Mile" a couple of years ago, we all learned that when opportunity comes, we have to lose ourselves, because we may only have one shot. So on Thursday night at the kickoff of Usher's Truth Tour, when the star attraction brought out a lucky fan to be serenaded, not only did the excited, dimply faced woman make sure she got close enough to Usher to touch his lips, she made sure she tasted his sweat.
"You have to be a bad girl," Usher said with a smile at the Hampton Coliseum several hours before the show. He was explaining how he chooses a girl to bring onstage during his shows. Thursday afternoon was Usher's last opportunity to rehearse for this opening-night show. The 25-year-old had been holed up in Virginia for four days making sure his routine was on point. If you saw the European leg of his tour, don't think that he was going to be doing the same old, same old here in the U.S. — he needed to add to his arsenal.
|Click for photos from Usher tour kickoff in Hampton, VA|
At 3 p.m., Usher, who had caused a little chaos by hitting the MacArthur Center mall in Norfolk earlier in the day, was onstage tightening up his show.
"Let 'The Truth' set you free," he said, hyping up the outing. "Every night it's something special. It's going to be a great tour. Every night you can come out in a safe environment and have a good time."
During the rehearsal, he wanted to make sure that when he did bring that special fan onstage, the scenario would be perfect.
"What's your name?" he asked an imaginary supporter while going over "Superstar." "Shabootha? Glad to meet you. I wanna share something special with you. I don't know if you could handle it."
By 6 p.m., opener Kanye West and his crew of artists on his label Very Good Music — John Legend, Consequence and GLC — were outside the backstage entrance shooting the breeze. "I can't wait, man," Kan said of the show.
The roads leading to the coliseum were backed up for miles. The city, whose biggest bragging right is that it houses the illustrious Hampton University, was under siege by the artist of the year. There was no other place to be.
When game time arrived, Mr. Entertainment lived up to the outing's title, "The Truth." Not that Usher was telling some startling revelations, but he is "The Truth" in that homes is the real deal. For all the knocks he gets about coming off arrogant sometimes, he's really that good. For two hours, he keeps the crowd on its feet, makes every song a spectacle, dances incessantly and doesn't miss a note because he's actually singing every song and not relying on recorded vocals to carry him — how many artists do all of those things in one concert nowadays? Good luck trying to name the three or four others that do.
Just before he hit the stage, Usher, his dancers and other members of his camp were all hunched over, bowing their heads in prayer backstage. After giving thanks and asking for a blessing, the posse amped themselves by yelling, "1,2,3, MasterCard" in unison, in honor of Usher's new Usher Raymond IV Debit MasterCard. Let's get ready to ruuuuuuummmmbaaaaaaallllll! Showtime.
A short movie that showed Usher getting dressed and coming to the venue preceded his grand entrance and opening number, "Caught Up." He was dressed all in white and yes, he had one fingerless glove on his right hand that ran up his forearm. Just as the music started, Kanye and his mother came out and sat in the best seats in the house, a bench attached to a barricade, just a few feet from the stage.
The set was pretty elaborate. There was a small stage up on top of the main stage, where the band played, but which left enough room for Usher and his dancers to do their thing. That smaller stage had a mini platform attached to it — which lowered to the main stage — and had two big staircases on both sides of it. To the left, a group of circular staircases climbed all the way to the top, and to the right, there was a fire escape replete not only with steps but its own elevator.
For the second song, "You Make Me Wanna," two dancers stayed on the top stage with Usher while two male dancers came out to the lower level with two chairs each in their hands. Each dancer threw one chair up to the top (Usher already had his own chair) and everyone began to dance. The fellas left and the ladies came out to back Usher up on "U Remind Me," which culminated with Usher dancing by himself during a breakdown of the song. "Go Usher, go Usher," the crowd yelled as he popped and locked and ended with a handstand.
Later, Usher was using his legs because he was in a low-speed chase with two of his female dancers during "That's What It's Made For." As soon as the opening note was sounded, Mr. E. had a devilish smile on his face and proceeded to walk and sing while the ladies followed.
"I slipped up, slipped in, hey man, what the hell you doing?" he sang. "Raw doggin's a never, I know, I know better." The crowd sang every note of the chorus. "Go on and hit it, that's what it's made for/ We got protection, that's what it's made for."
As Kanye looked on with a smile at the display, you could see girls and women showing love for Usher by holding up teddy bears, posters, flowers, camera phones and magazine covers.
For "Bad Girl," Ush dressed up in a lavender suit and came out in a chrome chair. His female dances wore tight black outfits that showed off cheekage as they pranced around unabashedly. "I keep a dollllllllaaaahhhhh worth a dyyyyyyyymmmmmessss," he sang. "You know pimpin' ain't easy."
His pimp game stayed tight after the song ended. He told his girls that he wanted them to scour the crowd to find a "bad girl" in the audience and bring her onstage. They looked to the left, they looked to right, and finally Usher himself peered out into the crowd and found that special one. The woman from the audience was rushed to the stage like the president fleeing for safety after a failed assassination attempt. She was given instructions to sit on a couch while Usher left the stage. He came back and stood on the stage opposite her and sang to his fan.
"I got two dozen roses," he began to croon, walking slowly toward her with flowers in his hands during "Do It to Me." He walked up the staircase and kept walking and singing.
"Get over here, get over here!" the smiling female yelled to Usher, pointing down to the couch. Even Usher's frowning security guard, who was patrolling on the floor by the stage, had to smile at that one.
By the time Usher finally got to the girl, the song transitioned to "Superstar."
"This goes out to my number-one fan," he said, but as the song progressed he began to sing about being her main supporter. "I'll be your groupie bay-bee/ 'Cause you are my superstar/ I'm your number-one fan, give me your autograph/ Sign it right here on my heart."
He went from holding the woman's hand while she sat on the couch to pulling her up and dancing close with her. She had her hands on his waist and was clutching his shirt tighter than an infant holds onto an adult finger. He moved behind her and continued singing, then she wiped the sweat off his face.
Usher went on to the next record, "Can U Handle It?," and continued singing to her. From the look of adoration on her face, it appeared that the woman could have devoured him at any second. The two came so close at one point that you could swear they kissed. He fell on top of her on the couch and afterward they both laughed, he kissed her on the forehead and she left the happiest camper in the troop.
The closing number, "Yeah!," didn't quite feel like the grand finale it was supposed to be because every song during Usher's set felt like the grand finale — that's how high the energy was.
Although Kanye West and company kept the crowd on its feet, there was no mistaking what his strongest number was — "Jesus Walks." Kanye closed with his current hit, wearing white from head to toe. "Jeeee-sus walks," the spectators roared, and when Kanye did his Jesus-walks dance across the stage, it was a wrap. They saluted him with more cheers.
Kanye started off his set with a short film of his own, which centered around a graduation. As Farnsworth Bentley, who was in the film, read Kanye's name to come and walk across the stage, he wasn't there. He had to "catch the beat."
West then showed up live and onstage for "Get Em High." "I got to catch the beat," I gotta catch the beat," he rapped.
Although Usher was clearly the main attraction of the night, Kanye wasn't your average opener that nobody really cares about, just there to kill a little time while the headliner gets ready. The fans were into his show and sang along joyously on several songs, like "All Falls Down" and even with guest performer John Legend on "Selfish" and a short rendition of the gospel song "I'll Fly Away." The most participation, however, came during "Slow Jamz." Kanye didn't even have to rap his verse, the crowd took care of the work for him.
After his set, a sweat-soaked West went backstage, where he was greeted by his mom. "Hey man, that was great!" she told him. "I loved it."
It seems like the Truth Tour is destined to improve as it progresses. Both Usher and Kanye had a few minor glitches in their sets, which should be worked out once they have a few concerts under their belts. Also, Christina Milian has been slotted as another opener and Mase is still in talks to be added to the lineup — he could be on the bill as early as August 12. Even if Mase doesn't make it out, Usher says he's been hollering at quite a few of his friends to come out as guest performers. Don't be surprised to see Lil' Flip when the tour hits Texas or somebody like T.I. or Lil Jon or Ludacris when the trek comes to Atlanta.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.
For full list of Usher tour dates, check out MTV.com's Tour Dates Page.
—Shaheem Reid, with additional reporting by Sway CallowaySway Calloway