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."