VIBE Q: A Man On Fire
USHER HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE HIS JUNIOR MACK DAYS. AFTER BATTLING DRAMA, DIVORCE AND A MIDLIFE CAREER CRISIS, THE FORMER SEXED-UP SUPERSTAR IS A DADDY WITH ISSUES AND A THREE-LETTER SMASH HIT. HE’S LEARNED THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FIDELITY AND MONOGAMY, BUT CAN THE SOUL MAN RECLAIM HIS LEGACY AS MICHAEL’S HEIR APPARENT?
BY CLOVER HOPE
You could hide out here at the Sunset Marquis. In the Zen-like garden, or perhaps in a villa. It’s a modest West Hollywood hotel, con- temporary with plenty of angles. Usher Raymond IV retreats here often, though these days there’s hardly much need to. The 32-year-old divorced father of two sons (Usher Raymond V, age 2, and Naviyd Ely, 1) is no longer the biggest star on the planet that would be Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. He’s still dropping jewels (“There Goes My Baby”), still restlessly pimping (“Lil Freak,” featuring Nicki Minaj). But a lot less people care to notice. They’re more interested in having “OMG,” a club single off his latest album, 2010’s Raymond V Raymond, as their ringtone than Usher as their wallpaper.
Has R&B’s biggest triple threat since Michael Jackson lost his sex appeal? Ever since shattering his playboy image in 2007 by marrying his stylist Tameka Foster (a mother of three, almost eight years his senior), Usher has struggled to reclaim his relevance. Album five, 2008’s Here I Stand, was an age-accelerating mood killer. Through it all, the artist widely considered MJ’s heir apparent stubbornly insisted that he knew what he was doing. There were 26 million albums sold to prove it. If 8701 was his Off the Wall, then Confessions was his Thriller. The album’s salacious appeal was fueled by fans’ fascination with Usher’s real-life breakup with TLC sexpot Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. Spawning four No. 1 singles, the 2004 disc was the last album to receive the RIAA’s diamond (10 million records sold), making Usher the final relic of the music industry’s golden era. For now, that’s his legacy. Lately he’s re- emerged as an important pop figure partially thanks to the Euro R&B boom engineered by producers like David Guetta (Kelly Rowland’s “Commander”) and will.i.am, whose infinite synths thrust “OMG” to No. 1 on the pop charts and sparked the repackaged EP Versus (“DJ Got Us Falling in Love,” “Hot Toddy”).
For a man whose music draws so much from his personal affairs, separating what’s real from what’s simply a good song can be challenging. Seated at a tranquil outdoor booth at the Sunset Marquis, Usher sports a mix of luxury (Audemars Piquet watch) and thrift store finds (vintage earth toned button-up, gray undershirt). With his North American OMG tour launching in November, and a week away from performing at the MTV Video Music Awards—his official rebirth into pop’s top tier—Usher is reflective, insightful and at times combative. Though he claims he’s “not a good articulator,” Usher is most candid when talking about love, sex and heartbreak—including his rejected proposal to Chilli and what divided him and Foster. Currently stuck in an awkward phase—way beyond a Chris Brown, not as timeless as R. Kelly—Usher is the first to admit that he’s still writing his narrative in hopes of one day succeeding the King of Pop.
Are you more pop than soul now?
I’m all of that. I can’t be put into a box. Artists who have been an inspiration to me, like Stevie Wonder, did everything. You gotta evolve. The soul is always in, no matter what form it is—R&B, hip-hop, whether I’m singing, dancing, rapping, whatever it may be. Even my gig on Broadway [in Chicago], I brought the soul to that as well.
What was soulful about Raymond v Raymond?
[Long pause] The soul is the passion, the way I sing, how convicted I am in what I’m saying and if you can really tie what I’m saying to a specific occurrence in my life. We all know that I went through what would be perceived as tumultuous situations—having got- ten married, having children. Some of those things, I pull from.
Why were you apprehensive about releasing “OMG”? Will.i.am said your team was iffy about it.
I think maybe because they were skeptics about the evolution of my art: We know Usher to be this one thing. Over the last two years, it’s been questionable, because of personal choices, whether his decisions were on point, and we don’t want to do anything that would move too fast for his demographic. But obviously they changed their mind. At one point in time I, too, felt like “OMG” might not necessarily have went with the overall story, but when I really took a step back and looked at the entire landscape of what this album represents, it is “OMG.”
Was this album an attempt at a career rebound?
Let me tell you something. Here I Stand sold more than Raymond V Raymond. So the perspective is all based off of what? Personal choice? Maybe not understanding the full picture. Maybe not really understanding the artist.
What did they not understand?
I don’t think I ever really got a chance to explain who I am. I can’t explain it in one conversation, but my music will begin to explain to you the range that I have as an individual. I don’t think it was a rebound at all. Some people in my organization felt like it was a rebound, but for me it was business as usual. Were there hard times in the process? Absolutely. I think it was the first time that doubt was ever amongst the opinions. Like, Can he do it again? Is it possible that this can happen? When you have 15 years of a legacy built, it shouldn’t be questionable with one album.