Usher: The Billboard Cover Shoot
Or, as Usher describes these things: "I get to see life through rose-colored glasses a lot of the time." Then he laughs.
Usher lives in Atlanta with his sons Usher V, age 6, and Naviyd Ely, 5. He won primary custody of them when he divorced their mother, Tameka Foster, in 2009, after two years of marriage. When he's not with them, he spends most of his time with his manager --girlfriend Grace Miguel, who, at 44, is eight years older than Usher and has been part of his career for three years. "I have an incredible partner and manager," says Usher. "She has helped me through some of the hardest times in my life and my career."
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Usher often alludes to challenges to overcome, to crises that left him smarter and tougher. One is clearly his acrimonious relationship with Foster, who was Usher's stylist before they married, and now stars on the VH1 reality show Atlanta Exes. (In October 2013, she sued for temporary full custody of their sons after the older child was caught in a pool drain. Usher's aunt had been watching them, and the boy was unhurt. Usher kept custody.)
The hard times aren't necessarily behind him, although they are perhaps of a less personal nature. There's the existential issue, common to superstar artists in 2014, of making the transition from diamond-certified albums and near-annual No. 1 hits to struggling to even score gold records. Usher's last album, 2012's Looking 4 Myself, has sold 504,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- 800,000 fewer than the one before it, 2010's Raymond vs. Raymond. This fall, he was supposed to release his eighth album, but unexpectedly -- and indefinitely -- pushed the record back. "I just ain't ready," he explains. "Meaning I have more that I want to say and more that I want to do. My process is pretty different. L.A. Reid will tell you, it takes two albums to make one with Usher."
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It's also possible that it's just not Usher's exact time anymore. The brand of male R&B he mastered isn't exactly dominating -- among the current top 20 singles, only Jeremih and Jason Derulo represent the Usher school. Drake, this decade's reigning urban-radio loverman, isn't even a singer, exactly, and makes the more traditional soul-based ballads that Usher is so great at seem even more old-fashioned. Then again, his biggest hits, from "Yeah!" to "Climax," were so unconventional as to rewrite the language of pop. And he could well have a pocket full of them. (There's a reason he has been in the studio with Skrillex and Diplo.) If Usher is worried about any of this, he's not letting on. "Marketing is more important than it has ever been," he says. "But I'm trying to tear the layers back and make it not so contrived. I think people just want entertainment. For certain artists it might be hard, but they don't have the show."
For now, Usher is taking a look back, delving deep into his own music and legend. For the last week, he has been camped out at Temple University's Liacouras Center, prepping for the Nov. 1 launch of a world tour he's calling the UR Experience -- a celebration of "20 years of music and entertainment." The arena's hoops and hardwood are stowed away, swapped for a vast spaceship-ish stage, Metallica-ready P.A. system and an entire Guitar Center's worth of shiny gear. The show will include elaborate choreography, megatons of pyro (stored behind a door marked with warnings not to smoke near it) and a killer 13-piece band that Usher refers to as his "funk-soul orchestra."
"Most tours cater to the specific launch of a project -- not this time," he says emphatically. "The focus this time is the music. Going all the way back to the beginning."
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Earlier that day, just after 8 a.m., Usher wanders out of his dressing room, marked with a sign reading "Keyser Soze," in search of breakfast. "I'm not a morning person, but I've become one as the result of having kids," he says, settling down at a large round table in the crew catering room. "The morning is my private time to spend with my boys. The music industry doesn't allow you to go to bed until five in the morning anyway. You have to just keep rolling."
Usher speaks with a honeyed drawl, and has an easy, thoughtful vibe. He's not exactly modest, tending to refer to himself in the third person and at one point comparing his music to Picasso's Blue Period, but he's not off-puttingly self-aggrandizing. He's quick to give credit to his team and praise other artists. He has a deep knowledge of everything from classic soul and commercial rock to cool indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Sinkane. And partly because he has been the center of attention since he was a teenager, he has learned to wear his celebrity lightly.
When his breakfast arrives it's just a couple of fried eggs and some bacon on a paper plate -- a far cry from his vegan period a few years ago, when he traveled with a private chef. "That was opulent as hell," he says. "It was just difficult to find people who can make vegan food taste great."
If you couldn't tell from his renowned music-video torso, not to mention dance skills mostly unrivaled in pop or R&B today, fitness and health are major areas of interest for Usher, who turned 36 earlier this month. (He jokingly bristles when his regimen comes up: "Are you asking that because of my birthday? You saying I'm getting old?") In addition to boxing, Usher gets major cardio during rehearsals. "I sweat like a hooker in church when I'm onstage!"
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Through the years he has tried pretty much every diet, from Paleo and Atkins to macrobiotics. "These days, I try to eat for my blood type when I'm not eating for the fat kid inside me," he says. His blood type? "A doctor I know came up with it, but hasn't released it yet, so I don't want to tell you too much about it," he explains. "But the idea is to eat the foods that work best for your body. For my blood type the meats I can eat are pork, beef and fish."
Usher's first fan was his mom, Jonetta Patton, who raised him with his stepfather, Terry Patton, and younger half-brother, James Lackey, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Usher never really knew his father, who died of a heart attack in 2008. Jonetta and Terry eventually divorced.) Convinced of his talent, Jonetta moved with her sons to Atlanta, where Usher was discovered and signed by Antonio "L.A." Reid when he was 14.
Mentoring is a key part of Usher's identity. It explains Bieber, the appeal to him of The Voice and the way he promotes within his organization (one of his choreographers used to be a dancer, for instance). "My mom always says, ‘You talk to everybody like they're your kids,' " he says. "I'm like, ‘I'm sorry, I was born to be a dad.' "
Usher is realizing there are limits to his influence, especially when it comes to Bieber's current behavior. "Our relationship is more man-to-man now," he says. "He's making his own decisions and it's important to show support. I can say I'm not happy with all the choices my friend has made, but I'm supportive of him. I try my hardest to give as much positive reinforcement as I can. I'll punch him in the f---ing chest when I need to, and give him a hug and kiss when I need to. It's more than just mentoring. I love the kid."
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Usher's own mentors include a Bad Boy-era Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs -- Reid sent Usher to live with Combs in New York as a teenager, with the idea of toughening him up. "I'd say I earned my stripes in New York City," says Usher. "My time with Puff, it gave me chutzpah." As the youngest member of the extended Bad Boy family -- they called him Baby Huey -- Usher received, as he has openly discussed, an all-access pass to sex, drugs and some of hip-hop's greatest stars. "I got to see performers like Tupac Shakur," he says. "Redman, Method Man, Ice Cube. I got to perform onstage with The Notorious B.I.G., be in sessions with him and Craig Mack. I got to be part of the driving force that was Bad Boy, that was Puff."
He has been thinking about his past a lot, in part because of the in-progress record. "Every album I've made represented a specific thing that was happening in my life," he says. "And not until now did I think to look back at my life and take inspiration from my own music." He has dozens of finished songs, including the tracks he has worked on with Skrillex and Diplo. Three singles have already debuted: "Good Kisser," a No. 2 R&B hit; the retro-soul "She Came to Give It to You," featuring Nicki Minaj; and the recently leaked "I Don't Mind" -- a bouncy, surprisingly tender ode to a stripper ("Shorty I don't mind/If you dance on a pole/It don't mean you're a ho") that has been racking up airplay on hip-hop stations across the country.
"Artists like Usher, you can't pin them down," says Diplo, who produced Usher's 2012 top 20 hit, "Climax." "That's what leads them to be successful and have longevity. If Usher brings in 20 R&B writers, they're going to do a certain kind of 'Usher' song. But Usher really wants to do something. Like, last album, he worked with Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun to write records like theirs, not 'Usher' records."
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Usher sees the UR Experience tour as a journey through his entire varied career, from his start as Michael Jackson-channeling teen sensation through his reign as R&B's biggest star to his current place as one of pop's elder statesman. "This will be one of my freest tours," he says. "Shit, I'm singing love songs that went on to be baby-makers -- and now the damn babies are in the audience." He cracks up. "Talk about a family reunion."
That afternoon, Usher wraps a dance rehearsal and joins the band to work out some rough parts. He glides over on his golden Segway, straps on a Fender Jazz Bass -- playing it is a new interest -- and kicks off a Prince-inspired funk jam. His part is a simple two-bar up-and-down groove, but it sounds good against the band's sleek perfection.
The show's "acoustic portion," meanwhile, is especially important him. "There's something magical about the Dave Matthews Band," Usher says. "Even though [Dave Matthews is] playing for a huge audience, he's bringing them into his own private space." Accompanied by guitar, keyboard and percussion, Usher sings a soaring version of his 2010 ballad "There Goes My Baby." He works closely with the three backup singers, drilling down on each harmony part. At one point the Rhodes keyboard tone gets a little hammy. Usher shoots the player a look and half-jokes, "Sounds like a baseball game, son!"
At 9:30 p.m., more than 12 hours after Usher arrived, the house lights snap off and a full concert run-through bursts into Technicolor life. For the first time all day we see the singer, who first appears silhouetted in classic Michael Jackson style, really dance. Even though it's just a rehearsal, and he's got whatever internal dial controls these things set at maybe 70 percent, it's still a rush. Nine songs in, during the Confessions banger "Caught Up," he spins twice, quickly, and sweat flies off his face in sheets.
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Earlier that week, Usher celebrated his birthday in New York with Miguel. They wanted to see the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but when they got there, the museum was closed. "We asked if there was any way to open the museum for me, and ended up going through the whole thing with the curator explaining shit to me," he says. "The theme of the show was luxury and degradation -- it was pretty cool."
He was especially interested in a period where the artist -- now the celebrated creator of, among other things, enormous balloon animals in mirror-polished stainless steel -- was rejected by the art establishment over sexually explicit work he made with an Italian porn star named Cicciolina, whom he married and divorced a year later. Shortly after their split, she gave birth to their son, Ludwig, and moved with the infant to Rome without Koons' consent. The resulting custody battle raged on for more than a decade. "When the art industry comes against you, or any similar industry, they can really try to destroy your career," says Usher. "Who are they to decide what is art? But then out of adversity comes something that creates not only strength but perspective."
It's hard to believe he's not really talking about himself. Some fans, especially R&B traditionalists, haven't been comfortable with what Usher considers the most important thing about his career -- musical diversity. "I've always wanted to be an artist who was recognized for versatility, which is why I began to play with EDM, I began to play with pop, with rock, with Latin music," he says. "Those things make up what I am as an -eclectic artist."
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Miguel, a former Island Def Jam executive, clearly supports Usher in pursuing his many directions. She's an impressive presence herself: attractive, stylish, off-the-charts smart. "She's someone who has been able to support and understand all of who I am," he stresses. "Not just as a dancer or as a performer or as a singer, but as a humanitarian and a businessman and as a person."
And she's a great travel companion, opening up Usher to the world in a new way. "One thing that has come from having a great partner like Grace is being able to cherish the places that I've gone," he says. "We see the monumental sites, go to the museums, eat in the best restaurants. I'm that guy now! In the past I'd do what I have to do and get on the bus to the next city. Life has become a vacation."