When 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, California. Clad all in black – from tennis shoes to the shades, he never removes during an hour-long interview – the singer is there to rehearse for his performance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver (he performed February 27 at Whistler Medals Plaza.)
His quiet fortitude on a rainy afternoon becomes all the more compelling – and fitting – when it's learned that 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 his album Raymond v. Raymond releases worldwide today. It's the often-delayed follow-up to his 2007 album, Here I Stand – and the first since his much-publicised 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 songs 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," said Williams. "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 v. 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 s–t off you; you've got to have some fun," says Mark Pitts, 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 be with him.' That was our approach."
Creative freedom in Vegas
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 Johnta 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 v. 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 songs include heartfelt ballads reminiscent of such earlier tracks 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 singsong rap that he's "single and ready to mingle".
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 (and former manager); that he understood what was being said," Pitts says. "It was just to make a statement. We didn't realise 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."
Jive Vice-President of marketing Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell says the label is crafting a promotional 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 building buzz through high-profile TV performances, radio interviews and contests, plus retail tie-ins.
One factor that's steered conversation away from the music is the turnover in Usher's management team. Early this year, 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 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 rumours resurfaced in early February. A report in New York's Daily News stated the singer had cut ties with his mother in November.
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."
During the past 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 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." (Reuters)