Usher: The Billboard Cover Story
Usher and his creative team began tossing around ideas for his next album, they had one goal in mind: to get his swagger back. "I had checked out," the singer acknowledges. "I went all the way into being super husband and super dad, thinking, 'I've got to be serious all the time. I've got to be the man.' I put my swagger down for a minute, but I didn't throw it away. Now it's time to get it back."
Flashing a devilishly engaging smile, Usher exudes steely determination as he shifts position on a rehearsal room couch at Centerstaging in Burbank, Calif. Clad all in black-from tennis shoes to the shades he never removes during an hourlong interview-the singer is there to rehearse for his Feb. 27 performance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His quiet fortitude on a rainy afternoon becomes all the more compelling-and fitting-when it's learned the room he's rehearsing in was last used by Michael Jackson while mapping his own anticipated return on the This Is It tour. "It wasn't intentional," Usher says when asked about the coincidence. "But I love being in this space. That same energy is still here; it lingers. All I've ever wanted as an artist is to appeal to as wide an audience as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson."
Now all eyes are on Usher as the March 30 release date approaches for "Raymond Vs. Raymond." It's the often-delayed follow-up to his 2007 album, "Here I Stand"-and the first since his much-publicized marriage to Tameka Foster ended in divorce. While "Here" eventually became a platinum seller (1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), fans' response to its more serious, mature tone paled in comparison to Usher's previous multiplatinum hallmarks, "8701" (4.7 million) and "Confessions" (9.7 million).
With three tracks simultaneously climbing the R&B and pop charts and the recent hire of a new manager, industry veteran and AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, can the 31-year-old divorced father of two recapture his swagger? Lamonda Williams, director of video on demand for Music Choice, believes that Usher is primed to capture the base he lost.
" 'Here' was a transitional album that got him from the Usher we knew through his tumultuous marriage and divorce," Williams says. "Now you hear him boldly breaking out on the singles 'Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)' and 'Lil Freak.' There's an in-your-face cockiness, but in an 'I'm free' kind of way."
Despite a title that echoes the confrontational heading of a divorce filing, "Raymond Vs. Raymond" was never envisioned as a contemporary take on Marvin Gaye's 1979 marriage-rending epic, "Here My Dear." It was more about "we've got to get this old-man shit off you; you've got to have some fun," says Mark Pitts, who A&R'd the project and is president of black music for Jive Label Group. "We said, 'We've got to get the guys wanting to be him and the girls wanting to do him.' That was our approach."
After meeting just before Christmas 2008 to begin laying the groundwork for the album, the next thing Pitts and a still-married Usher did was get out of his hometown of Atlanta. "I didn't want my music to be biased by what I was going through in my personal life or corner myself with a specific sound from there or New York," says Usher, who eventually settled in Las Vegas. "Vegas is an eclectic melting pot that gave me the freedom to be more creative."
Usher, who first landed on the R&B singles chart in 1993 with "Call Me a Mack," began collaborating on songs with producers Dre & Vidal and Pharrell Williams. In Los Angeles, he also began working with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Polow Da Don. Then it was back to Las Vegas, joining forces in a self-styled Rat Pack collective that included songwriter/producers Johntá Austin, Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox.
During the course of additional songwriter and producer collaborations with Sean Garrett, the Runners, Jim Jonsin, Rico Love, Ester Dean and Jive labelmate Miguel, Usher keyed in on the "Raymond Vs. Raymond" concept.
"People immediately thought, 'Oh, damn, he's about to talk about what happened in his marriage,' " Usher recalls. "But it would be too shortsighted to just talk about my relationship. A lot of the things I spoke about on 'Confessions' weren't my own experiences. It was an outlet for stories I'd heard."The new album's 14 tracks include heartfelt ballads ("There Goes My Baby," "Foolin' Around") reminiscent of such earlier smashes as "Burn" and "Confessions," intermingled with edgy, sexy party jams like the fantasy romp "Lil Freak" featuring Young Money upstart Nicki Minaj (and sampling Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City") and a pumping anthem to hot females titled "OMG," featuring the song's writer/producer Will.i.am. Also making guest appearances are fellow Atlantans Ludacris ("She Don't Know") and T.I. ("Guilty"). On the latter, Usher and T.I. trade bragging rights as Usher lets it be known in his own sing-song rap that he's "single and ready to mingle."
Originally due in fall 2009, "Raymond Vs. Raymond" has gone through its share of shifting release dates. An announced Dec. 21 date was pushed back to early 2010 by the label in order to give the album "a proper launch." Then in late December, leaks began appearing on blog sites following a Christmas holiday robbery in which Usher's vehicle was broken into and jewelry, furs and a computer containing unreleased recordings were stolen, according to news reports.
"A lot of things happened in between, including personal issues that Usher was going through, that threw us off," Pitts says of the album's delay. "We lost some time and lost the flow."
The one nod to Usher's personal problems is the Garrett-produced "Papers," recorded before the singer filed for divorce. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and peaked at No. 31 on the Hot Billboard 100.
" 'Papers' let everyone know that Usher knew what everyone was saying about him, his marriage and his relationship with his mom; that he understood what was being said," Pitts says. "It was just to make a statement. We didn't realize it would be as big as it was."
Usher adds, "The song wasn't intended to glorify my personal situation or people breaking up. I didn't know if it was going to be the single or part of the album. I just thought it was a special track that would represent me well."
Currently, three album tracks-"Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)," "There Goes My Baby" and "Lil Freak"-are steadily climbing both Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and the Hot 100. "Hey Daddy," featuring Plies, rose to No. 10 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and No. 47 on the Hot 100, while "There Goes" stands at No. 29 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, No. 11 on Adult R&B and No. 71 on the Hot 100. "Lil Freak," leaked before the Wonder sample was cleared a couple of weeks ago, moves 34-28 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and is climbing the Rhythmic chart (38-32).
Because these songs haven't matched the instant crossover appeal of Usher's 2004 smash "Yeah!," some industry watchers are questioning the sales fate of "Raymond Vs. Raymond." Pitts cautions patience, as do two major-market radio programmers.
" 'Yeah!' and 'Confessions' were a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon," Pitts says. "His previous records didn't do that, and you can't get spoiled by that. At the same time, he's never had three records going up all at the same time. These are work records and they're starting to take off."
At WQHT (Hot 97) New York, "Daddy's Home" is the rhythmic station's No. 1 researching record. PD Ebro Darden believes Usher will regain his blockbuster appeal. "Following 'Confessions,' it would have been difficult no matter what the music sounded like," Darden says. "He was mentally in a different place on the last album. But mainstream needs artists like Usher who are popular with R&B audiences first."
Top 40 KIIS Los Angeles PD John Ivey also dismisses any notion that Usher can't still claim top 40 crossover play. He predicts that "OMG" will be a pop smash.
"We desperately love 'OMG,' " Ivey says. "But the label doesn't want us to play it yet. We're always looking for great songs that sound relevant and current for the format, regardless of the artist's age or what happened the last time out. A hit record is forgiving of everything."
Independent retailer Dedry Jones, who operates the Music Experience in Chicago, believes that "the label needs to focus on his core urban male and female base-the original fan base that put him in the position to sell a diamond CD."
That is exactly what Jive VP of marketing Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell says the label is doing: crafting a campaign focusing on "the pedigree that Usher has created for himself: great R&B music that turns pop." After using "Papers" (which didn't have an accompanying video) to let Usher address his personal problems "without actually having to talk" about them, Cambridge-Mitchell says the label has been ramping up buzz through high-profile TV performances, radio interviews and contesting, plus retail tie-ins.
Prior to his medal ceremony performance at the Olympics, Usher sang during the Michael Jackson 3-D tribute at the 52nd annual Grammy Awards and also performed in Arlington, Texas, during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game on TNT. Bookings on "American Idol," "Good Morning America" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" are being confirmed.In terms of retail, the label is participating in iTunes' LP and Countdown programs. "More," another new Usher song used in a TNT-filmed music video to market the NBA All-Star Game, is an iTunes-exclusive bonus track tied to the album's release. The label is also securing a sponsorship partner for a series of listening sessions across the country. "It's not about bells and whistles," Cambridge-Mitchell says. "We're staying very focused on the music."
One factor that's steered conversation away from the music is the marked turnover in Usher's management team. Just one month ago, Usher hired AEG's Phillips to be his fourth manager in four years. Phillips succeeds Usher's longtime manager-his mother Jonnetta Patton. The singer initially severed management ties with Patton in May 2007 while dating his future wife, Tameka Foster. Usher was then briefly managed by industry veteran Benny Medina (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez) during the launch of "Here I Stand." Patton, who heads JPat Management, then reteamed with her son in August 2008.
New management rumors resurfaced in early February. A report in New York's Daily News stated the singer had cut ties with his mother last November and speculated the new album's delay was tied to the label's refusal to release it until the singer signed with a new management firm. According to the Daily News, Usher and his girlfriend, former Def Jam executive Grace Miguel, were overseeing his career.
Phillips-who also manages Lionel Richie and worked with Jackson on the aborted This Is It tour-says he regularly consults with Patton. He downplays any concerns over the recent management kerfuffle.
"Careers are roller coasters," says Phillips, who in his AEG role has promoted tours for Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. "My job is to balance all the factors around him so Usher can just be the artist. Part of the problem with 'Here' was Usher changing managers; I'm not sure there was a coherent plan with that. And [Jive] had inherited him [from LaFace/Arista]. So there was a lot of stuff outside the quality of the music that might have impacted that success. This time around, everything is more connected.
"Not every decision I make is about money, though people would argue that," Phillips continues with a laugh. "I wasn't looking for another client, but Usher asked me. This one's special; he's one of American music's few international treasures. If I can help at this stage of his career, I want to be there. From the indicators I'm seeing with 'Lil Freak' and the other songs, I have a feeling he'll come back bigger than ever."
During the last 17 years, the Usher brand has grown to include the New Look Foundation, dedicated to empowering inner-city youth; a successful line of male and female fragrances, including the September 2009 launch of another male scent, Usher VIP; forays into acting on stage, TV and in film ("Chicago," "Texas Rangers"); an ownership interest in the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers; and the introduction of Island pop phenomenon Justin Bieber. Usher says he and Bieber have been working to find the right song to record for Bieber's upcoming sophomore set, and predicts, "Justin is having an incredible moment right now that's going to turn into even more history in the future."
Despite the challenges of trying to reclaim his superstar status in a drastically downshifting industry climate, Usher is still determined to create more history of his own. "I've come through a metamorphosis and I'm in my new skin," the singer says as he rises up from the Centerstaging couch. "A lot of things have happened in the last few years that could have broke me, but I'm still standing; rejuvenated with a new peace, confidence and energy. I've got fire in my eyes."