Outside the windows of a 36th-floor conference-room suite at New York's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the morning is gray and befit for April showers. Always the trendsetter, Usher has plucked from his war
Outside the windows of a 36th-floor conference-room suite at New York's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the morning is gray and befit for April showers. Always the trendsetter, Usher has plucked from his wardrobe a navy blue military-style button-up adorned with gold clasps to complete his jeans-and-sneaker ensemble. He is in town to promote his fifth album, "Here I Stand," due May 27 via Jive, and to premiere, later that day, the video for his Polow Da Don-produced hit single, "Love in This Club."
The synthy club track rocketed from No. 51 to No. 1 in its third week on the Billboard Hot 100 in March—the third-highest leap to No. 1 in Hot 100 history and his eighth chart-topper.
Usher is a tough act to follow, though, even for Usher himself. After all, his last album, 2004's "Confessions," has shifted more than 9.5 million units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Still, the success of "Love in This Club" showed that Usher retains his core fan base among the other triple-threat stars that have reigned in his absence. "That's an outstanding performance considering he hasn't had anything new to release for four years," radio analyst Guy Zapoleon says of "Love in This Club." "A lot of new music fans have grown up with Chris Brown and Ne-Yo as their examples of great pop R&B music." Zapoleon further points out that Usher remains a leader in the urban and rhythmic formats. "Usher, because of his huge track record of No. 1s at top 40 rhythm, R&B/hip-hop radio, as well as hot AC and AC, is known to a wider group of music fans."
Watch more video of Billboard's Q&A with Usher.
In the span since "Confessions," the 29-year-old entertainer has stayed active, but without new music to promote. He starred in a Broadway musical (as Billy Flynn in "Chicago"). He changed publicists and talent agencies. (He is now at Creative Artists Agency.) In May 2007, he fired his mom, Jonetta Patton, as his manager and replaced her with Benny Medina (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez). He married stylist Tameka Foster and had his first child, Usher Raymond V, events that have placed his personal life under the microscope more than ever.
Usher admits to having anxiety over all the back-end changes, as well as his recording for the first time without former Arista CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid, who is now heading Island Def Jam. "Working with Benny Medina [and] new attorneys would definitely be something that you would be nervous about," Usher says. "It's new people. It's a new team, so you're only hoping for the best. But we're off to a great start, [with] a No. 1 single that's widely been accepted and excited about the prospect of another hit record."
Amid all the business and non-music distractions of the past two years, Usher kept creating new material in his home studio in Atlanta. Early last year, he reconnected with longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri, who co-produced several "Confessions" tracks, including "Burn" and "Confessions Part II." "The most important part to me is to make sure that I'm always creating something new, giving you a new sound," Usher says. "That's why I work with Jermaine Dupri before I work with anybody else. And I put emphasis on making sure that this album was more musical than anything, because I wanted it to step outside the norm."
But the homecoming hasn't entirely been smooth. The behind-the-scenes shifts led to an unstructured launch for "Here I Stand," starting with the leak of the club track "Dat Girl Right There" featuring Ludacris late last year. Jive had yet to secure a lead single when the Young Jeezy-featured "Love in This Club" leaked in February. But the enormous chart climb quickly eased concerns. "The greater part about it," Usher says, "is the fact that people are antsy for a record, so they're going to grab onto it."
Realistic about the chances of topping "Confessions," Jive is setting up new partnerships that include a Sony Ericsson deal comprising domestic and international print campaigns, TV and promotional concerts. The label is also banking on Usher's worldwide tour this fall to further drive sales.
When Usher Raymond started out, he was still a boy. L.A. Reid signed him to Arista when he was just 13. Throughout his decade-plus career, his sales and popularity have risen on a steady gradient. Released in 1994, his self-titled LaFace debut has sold nearly 300,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Its follow-up, "My Way," went gold. Then in 2001, the six-times-platinum "8701" all but solidified his superstar status before "Confessions" hit three years later.
Usher insists that it's his compelling tales that have kept registers ringing. "It's like an autobiographical experience every time you hear an Usher album," he says. "I don't just release records. I don't put things out and just allow them to fly. There's always a story."
This time, again, Usher's game plan is simple: Tell a story. "The premise of my story is, 'You truly aren't a king until you really find your queen,' and I felt like I found someone who's the foundation for my life," he says. "I married her and had a child with her, so that's going to definitely raise a lot of eyebrows, but I don't really listen to the negativity. I hear it, but at the same time this is my story and you can't tear it down if I don't let you."
"Here I Stand" represents, to many involved in the project, a portrait of the artist as a grown man. This transition is reflected in songs like the soaring Tricky Stewart-produced ballad "Moving Mountains" and the disco-esque dance cut "This Ain't Sex." Another Stewart track, "His Mistake," finds Usher being blamed for another man's follies ("Always guilty before the sin/I can't win"), and on the Dre & Vidal-crafted title track, the singer channels Stevie Wonder.
With the new album ramping up, Usher remains busy with other pursuits. Last summer, he launched his eponymous fragrance line, and he still runs his label Us Records, whose roster includes One Chance and Rico Love. Next, he plans on starting his own consulting company to help develop artists. "I really want to go into these record companies and become the builder of different projects," Usher says. "It's not necessarily my hands, but it's my expertise where the right artist has the right choreographer. The right artist has the right stylist, the right marketing plan to help introduce what they're doing."
As major companies start compensating for dwindling record sales by focusing more on the artist-as-brand, Usher wants in on that, too. Medina stresses the importance of focusing on the music first. "The best all have a certain creative ADD, and he certainly has that. He is a musician, artist, businessman and entrepreneur," Medina says. "More than anything else, that's the greatest challenge—how to manage all the creative opportunities that comes with diversification and still manage to deliver greatness."