Usher: The Billboard Cover Story
The R&B Superstar Aims to Blend Genres on 'Looking 4 Myself' While Keeping Core Audience
Kale salad. Steamed spinach. Lean protein-organic, no hormones or antibiotics. No sugar. No carbs. It may sound like the latest celebrity torture diet, but Usher's catering requests for his Billboard cover shoot come not from vanity but necessity: He must trim down from an already chiseled 176 pounds to the welterweight of 161 pounds in preparation for the role of Sugar Ray Leonard in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone, with Gael Garcia Bernal and Robert De Niro. This also helps explain his spontaneous hooks and jabs on set today in front of the camera.
The boxing training has clearly seeped into his consciousness. In talking about his seventh album, Looking 4 Myself (due June 12)-a fusion of electro-soul, old-school R&B and modern club anthems both Usher and his label, RCA, feel will expand his music and his audience-the pugilist metaphors come easy: "It's all about striving for greatness and offering the best I have. It's no different than a boxer: Standing in front of the person trying to tear his head off, he has to give his all to make it out of that ring."
Here's another then: Consider Usher in fighting shape to defend the belt he reclaimed during the last two years. Looking 4 Myself sounds like it may be the album of his career, and it follows his expansion into the international dance circuit, lending his soulful voice to David Guetta's club smash "Without You," and exploring dance textures on 2010's Raymond V. Raymond and its deluxe edition, Versus, which included "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love." "Without You" and "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" have sold 6.3 million copies combined, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and both reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Raymond V. Raymond (1.3 million sold) and Versus (302,000) topped out at Nos. 1 and 4 on the Billboard 200.
Those hits, plus the chart-topping single "OMG" (4.5 million copies), all served to reconfirm his status as a global pop force, which came as a relief to his label after sales of 2008's Here I Stand underwhelmed (1.3 million copies) following the massive Confessions in 2004, moving nearly 10 million copies, according to SoundScan.
The ensuing sold-out tours and appearances to promote the Guetta single took the Atlanta crooner to unexpected locales across the globe, from all-night clubbing on Ibiza to fist-pumping to DJ Afrojack at Coachella in 2011. "Electronic music has given me a new story," Usher says, "a new opportunity to build something I think a mass audience will understand."
A lot of careful thinking has gone into just how to tell-and sell-that story. The opening gambit came on Valentine's Day, with a deceptively sexy gift to fans in the form of "Climax"-deceptive in that despite its slinky sound, it's not filled with the double-entendres one might expect of the veteran seducer, but rather explores a relationship's apex and torturous demise. The divorced father of two-who split from now ex-wife Tameka Foster in 2009-launched the single through an exchange on Twitter with the song's co-producer, the in-demand, experimental hitmaker Diplo.
"That was certainly an innovative move," RCA Music Group president/COO Tom Corson says. However, the real daring came not merely in the delivery, but in the actual execution of the song. "The easiest thing to do when you have success is to keep doing that until it's broken," Corson says. "But instead, Usher took things to the next level [musically] . . . and with 'Climax,' what's come of it is a massive urban and rhythm record, which is now going pop. That's ballsy, and impressive. The fact that he wanted to come with that first-which we backed him 100% on-shows a real artist's game-changing philosophy. It's challenging [for the label] in a way, because we have to get it on pop radio, but at the same time, it is a big opportunity to move the market in a cultural way." "Climax" is No. 18 on the Hot 100, and No. 1 for a third week on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
"Because Usher's had such huge hits with the Guetta record and 'OMG,' people forget how much depth he has," says Diplo, who counts his sessions for Looking 4 Myself as the most adventurous of a superstar clientele that's included Beyoncé, M.I.A. and No Doubt. "He's so open-minded. He wasn't chasing a sound or jumping on trends. He just wanted to make something that felt fresh," Diplo says. "He gave us messages like, 'We're going to bring the strip club to the stadium.' His references were crazy; he was bringing up Monsters of Folk, Little Dragon and all kinds of things. He makes big, giant pop records but he is also a huge fan of everything."
When RCA Music Group CEO Peter Edge heard "Climax," his mind went straight to another R&B great: Marvin Gaye. "When Marvin Gaye did 'Sexual Healing' in the '80s, he came with a combination of the latest drum machine, but the most soulful vocal. And 'Climax' is that kind of record. He's managed to mesh the styles of R&B and electronic dance music-and he's done so with a vocal that is arguably his best ever."
Far beyond "Climax," the album is rife with potential singles-ones that will reach specific markets, but also cross over, Edge hopes. "We're putting out 'Scream' [produced by Max Martin, who also helmed "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love"] to the pop format worldwide, and at the same time we're putting out 'Lemme See' with Rick Ross, to the album format-that will cover his two key bases right there. By the time the album is available, Usher's collective audience will have had a chance to really sample a number of songs from the album, which will show the breadth of what he's presenting." If all goes as planned, the end result will be an Usher album "that appeals to his earliest fans, and people who may have never listened to or owned an Usher album before," Edge adds.
The list of producers and co-writers alone-including new recruits like Diplo, Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele (who is featured on the immensely catchy title track) and Swedish House Mafia (which turns in an electrifying club banger called "Numb"), and prior collaborators like Pharrell Williams and Rico Love-gives a hint of the album's many textures.
As for where Usher fits into the newly reconfigured RCA label (see story, page 16), "he is right on the top of the tree," Edge says. "He's one of our premiere artists . . . With the Raymond album he came back and had big hits and re-established himself. With this one, he's bringing hits-and he's bringing concept and cool factor. He's taken it to a whole different level, and it should be an even more impactful project."
He also has new management behind him. Grace Miguel of Coup D'Etat/URIV Group now heads up his management, taking over from AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, who briefly managed Usher after the star relieved his mother, Jonnetta Patton, of managerial duties a second time in late 2008. "I see this record continuing the artistic journey Usher began the first time he was recognized for fusing sounds with Lil Jon to create 'Yeah!'" Miguel says. "Usher revels in the challenge of expansion and is courageous enough to take risks to grow as a performer."
"In life we have to grow," Usher says of his management changes, "and one thing that's been beautiful is that I've been able to grow along with my mother and people of my past. They're proud of me as I move forward, and are able to acknowledge the work I've been doing and say, 'I like what you're doing, and I like that you've been able to pick it up and continue to move on.'"
Miguel also happens to be romantically linked with Usher -- which only strengthens the extended family vibe of his overall team, she says. "Usher's core team is run like a family who inspire each other to reach our full potential and have each other's backs, while we create the foundation for his monumental success," Miguel says. Among his longtime business and creative team members are RCA president of urban music/Bystorm Entertainment CEO Mark Pitts, who has worked with Usher for 20 years and serves as his A&R rep, and musical director Johnny "Natural" Najera, who has been with Usher for 12 years. "That personal connection," Miguel adds, "allows us all to really go the extra mile to help him achieve his goals."
His goals for this album are certainly big -- extending his global reach in the pop and dance realms far and wide, while taking his core R&B fans along for the ride.