As he gears up to release his much-anticipated eighth album Flawed later this year, Usher can’t help but keep his eye on the competition.
“Someone said The Weeknd broke your record for most awards in one night,” Usher said as he sat down a sunny terrace of the Palais du Festivals at the 73rd Annual Cannes Lions, after his talk with Ryan Seacrest, referring to last month’s Billboard Music Awards. “I instantly walked over to my awards shelf to count, and I said, ‘Let’s see, I have 1, 2, 3….” He eventually counted 11 for 2004’s blockbuster Confessions, which still holds the record over The Weeknd’s eight. “And I had 18 total — that’s still the most of all time, right?”
If Usher’s been preoccupied with his legacy as of late, it’s no coincidence. The road to Flawed has been several years in the making, beginning with 2014’s “Good Kisser” and continuing with other singles like “I Don’t Mind,” “She Came To Give It To You” and “Chains,” the latter of which just won its first Cannes Lion Award this week for its video. A 2014 arena tour followed, as well as high-profile brand deals with Pepsi and Cheerios. Now, with last week’s simultaneous release of Flawed‘s lead singles “Crash” and “No Limit” (featuring Young Thug), Usher is still building a catalog that’s vying to add a few more trophies to that shelf of his.
But he’s also taken on the dual challenge of embodying the history of boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, for the biopic Hands of Stone, which is out Aug. 26 via The Weinstein Company. In his talk with Seacrest, Usher spoke about that film’s own long journey to the big screen, from filming locations (“We were gonna shoot it in Puerto Rico, we eventually decided to create an industry in Panama and it was an amazing experience”) to physical training and capturing his unique mindset (“He was very confident, but very calculated as a pugilist – I lived in the idea of how he moved under the pressure of who he was.”)
Seacrest, for his part, is also embarking on a new career chapter, having just completed his 15-year run as the host of “American Idol.” For his first summer without traveling to national auditions, the multi-hyphenate will head to the Olympics in Rio to host coverage for NBC, and teases that there might be a few projects to fill “Idol”‘s void on the near horizon. Billboard spoke with both Usher, 37, and Seacrest, 41, about making history, upcoming projects and the importance of mentorship.
Billboard: Usher, you’ve had a very emotional 48 hours, having just come from Cleveland where your Cavaliers broke a 52-year losing streak. How are you feeling?
Usher: I’m still sobering up. [laughs] This is a win for us, man! LeBron [James] did it, you know, but you gotta 100 percent give it up to LeBron and all the Cavaliers and the entire administration. They really worked their asses off the entire year. If you believe in something, this is an American story. When you look at this man, he had humble beginnings, came to Cleveland, left, went to Miami, but he came back and he delivered on his promise.
You’ve been an investor in the Cavs since 2005, so that must have been a particularly cathartic pay-off for you.
U: It was fun to have our first champagne shower.
Speaking of moments that have been years in the works, you just confirmed the name and upcoming release of your next album, Flawed. Do you have a date in mind for that yet?
U: You know, I like to release music the way I feel it, as opposed to having a date. The idea of dates, boxes, categories are very scary for me.
Regardless of timing, what inspired you to call it Flawed?
U: I find the inspiration every time I find a word: what is ‘flawed?’ It’s something that is not perfect. It’s a future relic of some sorts, to grow and blossom and gain texture. But it is those things, those tumultuous occurrences and things that happen in your life that define what it is, and in our country and us as people. All of these things are standards, and I became the inspiration. Now I cant tell you yet at the end what it’s gonna be, and but right now it’s Flawed.
Ryan, you spoke with us last year about your athletic ability to multi-task in your career. With Idol now off the air, has its absence sunk in yet?
Ryan Seacrest: No it has not. I mean after 15 years, I don’t think it’ll sink in until next year, when we’re not on the air doing it. When you’re in the center of something, on a ride, I don’t think you realize what it is until it’s over. Reflecting upon it, it’ll have a different meaning when you look back. It won’t sink in until I don’t show up for American Idol in January, February.
Are you someone that needs to replace that hole in your calendar?
RS: Yes, 100 percent.
Do you have things lined up to replace that?
RS: I’m someone who thinks that where there’s a void, I need to fill it, but I’m trying to have patience and a little bit of discipline, as we talked about earlier. I’m waiting to host the Olympics this summer, do a bunch of things with NBC, and after that see if there’s something else to do.
Usher, you’ve got Hands of Stone coming in August. Is touring again a priority as well?
U: Touring is definitely on the horizon. I mean, obviously: single, video, album and tour. But this time around, I’m doing things a little bit different. I don’t know if you’ve seen the picture of a piece of art from a collaboration between myself and this artist Daniel Arsham. An interest in art and artist affiliation in something I’m very interested in and is very new to me. I’ll be doing pop-ups, something that represents an immersive experience so you can get really into the idea and what music is saying and the art is really dictating.
When you say pop-ups, does that mean we don’t know where you might show up from a touring perspective?
U: An immersive experience, we’ll leave it at that. [laughs] I want y’all to feel it!
You both talked in your Cannes panel a lot about the importance of mentors. Usher, for you it was LA Reid, and now it’s you with Justin Bieber. Ryan, Dick Clark was obviously an important mentor and inspiration for you. How are you paying it forward these days?
RS: I’m a massive advocate for our internship program. Without someone giving you a shot, opening a door, believing that your obsession is a real thing when you’re young, you don’t get the opportunity. Every single day I’m reminded of that. Had someone not opened a studio door for me, I would not be here today. It’s similar for an artist, you’ve got to give someone a shot.
Speaking of that, Usher, there’s been reports that you’ve officially joined the Scooter Braun management family, after many years of collaborating together on Bieber’s career and other projects. Is that something you can confirm?
U: I’ve always been in the Scooter family. We actually have worked together on artists, and worked together in business, so it’s just a continuum.
RS: They’re partners, man.
Andrew Hampp is a vice president at music experiential and sponsorship agency MAC Presents.