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EXCLUSIVE: Usher’s serenades are now legendary. He explains their origin story

Usher says we can thank Taraji P. Henson for the phenomenon.
Getty Images / TODAY Illustration
/ Source: TODAY

It wouldn’t be an Usher concert without at least one serenade.

The act has become a staple of his Las Vegas residency. In what is now his signature move, Usher stares women down and dramatically sings one of his love songs. Caresses are occasionally involved; melting always is.

His serenades to Gabrielle Union and Taraji P. Henson have gone viral. Usher has also sang to WNBA champion A’ja Wilson, nearly sitting in her lap, Summer Walker, Issa Rae, Winnie Harlow, Doja Cat and more. During a visit to TODAY with Hoda & Jenna Nov. 1, he brought a bit of his Vegas residency to New York and serenaded the co-hosts.

But it’s his serenade to Keke Palmer that made the most headlines. The father of Palmer’s child criticized the outfit she wore to the show, leading to outcry. Later, Palmer and Usher collaborated on a music video “Boyfriend,” which he tells was meant to be a “positive” and “fun” response to “negativity.” 

The serenades have simply become iconic. But what makes a good one, and how did they get started? Below, spoke to Usher about the making of these moments.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What makes a good serenade?

Well, one, great motivators and inspiration. You got to look out there and see somebody that’s enjoying it and obviously connected to it — eager to sing with you, for you.

The serenades are really an impromptu thing that just has become a part of this moment (and residency), but it’s a classic part of R&B.

When you go back to the earlier days of R&B, that was what you went to the show for — these impromptu moments where you really did connect with an audience member or audience members. Call and response (is) being able to connect with one person and make them feel something, sing something. Everybody else in the room is feeling what that one person is feeling.

How did this get started, and how do you know who’s going to be in the audience?

Some were invited and some decided to come.

Some people were celebrating their actual birthdays. For instance, Taraji P. Henson was celebrating her birthday. So it just became even an elevated experience for her. Actually, I’d say it kicked off with her.

I (previously) had this moment in my show that was really about a connection. It was called “The Date” and I brought one audience member on the stage and I serenaded her. But I hadn’t quite worked it all the way out.

When Taraji went up on stage before I even went to go get her, I was like, “Oh, my god. This is an incredible moment,” and it went viral.

I couldn’t have planned that. It was something that was organic. Part of it is being present and having fun. R&B music is about that type of connection. It is fun. It is using your imagination and creating an environment. I do that with my voice and I do that with what I choose to do in the moment."