Singer Usher performs on NBC's 'Today' show in New York, May 18, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID
Ushering in a new Usher? Easier said than done.
But the latter is the challenge the R&B superstar felt he had to accept on his tellingly titled seventh record Looking 4 Myself.
"You have to evolve or evaporate," explains Usher (last name: Raymond) in an exclusive Canadian print interview.
"It's inevitable, in business or in life -- if you don't continue to grow, then you just become a story from the past."
Usher's past is nothing to be ashamed of.
At the ripe age of 33, the Atlanta native is an industry veteran who has sold more than 65 million albums and cut some 17 top 10 singles, including the Grammy-winning Yeah!, My Boo and There Goes My Baby.
And that's just one part of his extensive resume, which also includes acting credits, philanthropic work, entrepreneurial ventures -- and oh yeah, his mentorship of an obscure up-and-coming singer named Justin Bieber. (See sidebar.)
To Usher, though, the past is prologue. And Looking 4 Myself -- which expands his musical vocabulary by infusing old-school soul and R&B with cutting-edge electronica and dance music -- represents rebirth.
"I feel new," he says. "Like a renewed artist. This is almost like a first-time experience to me. And a lot of people are saying, 'Wow, I didn't know him like that. I didn't know he made music like that. I didn't know he felt like that. I didn't know he spoke like that.'
"In Looking 4 Myself, I found something new. I'm really excited about it. I'm optimistic about this next chapter in my life."
With Looking 4 Myself due Tuesday, the soft-spoken, thoughtful singer called from his "home away from home" of New York City to tell the tale.
Here's how it went:
In the liner notes of Looking 4 Myself, you write: 'I finally let go of the me I thought I was.' Who was that and why did you need to let go of him?
Hmm. Well, there's freedom in letting go -- but not getting rid of. Nothing you experience in life should be perceived as bad or good. That's my philosophy. But there's a perception of who we are in our minds, based on what we have to do, what we know works, what we know is comfortable. But this album, I made it based on how I felt and what I loved. And what I thought had something to do with shaping the songs. But I did less thinking and more living. We're taught in life who we should be and what we should be. And it's not until you really start living and allowing yourself to feel -- allowing yourself to own your own s---- and your own mistakes -- that you really understand what is going on down here and what really matters, man.
What sparked these epiphanies?
It was just life; coming of age. I grew older. The responsibilities I have at 33 are far different than what I was dealing with at 21. Who I was as an entertainer is much different than who I am now.
Some artists slow down as they age. You seem to be speeding up and getting more ambitious. What keeps driving you?
The music. The experiences. And just life. Being exposed to different things; I think that's what does it. All of that really speaks to the growth of one's personality. And before this album, I was travelling to foreign places and being inquisitive about different songs and different people.
I went to Australia and found out about Empire of the Sun, who I worked with on the album. I travelled to Europe and was exposed to Swedish House Mafia. I went to Coachella. I went to Ibiza with my good friend David Guetta. He began to help me understand there's a different type of musical experience and that I could -- I hate this word -- commercialize that and make it palatable for the rest of the world to enjoy the way I did. That's what began to shape the music.
I suspect a lot of the names you just mentioned would surprise people who put you in the R&B box.
My analogy of boxes has always been: If you find yourself in a box, you're dead. You're in a coffin. You cannot categorize yourself like that in this day and age. Because these days, you never know what people are going to like.
You've got black kids liking electronic music. You've got hip-hop heads enjoying country. You've got rappers singing. There's this melting pot of music. And there is an electronic element that ties it together.
Live instrumentation -- which is how I was introduced to music -- that's not really done. So with this album, I wanted to bring the soulful essence of music played on instruments to a new experience through electronic music. I know that sounds complicated, but it works well in my head!
It seems counterintuitive at a time when so many artists are hunkering down and trying to protect their bit of turf.
And rightfully so. Record sales are not what they used to be. So people go with the formula. That's no discredit; to each his own. In some lights, that does work. But if you want to be recognized as a legacy artist who is able to translate a message to everybody through music, you have to allow yourself to try different things and at least try to represent different genres.
You're training to play Sugar Ray Leonard in the movie Hands of Stone. What effect has that had on you?
A really good one. I've become a boxer. I know my way around the ring. I don't think I'm going to switch careers. But I do feel really good about what I'm going to offer and what I have to offer to the character. And it is great for the preparation for touring and performing. You can't get in better shape than a boxer.
But it must be frustrating to have to wait to tour until after you make the film.
Well, yeah. But I'm only scheduled to shoot in July. I wasn't planning to be on the road until the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
Preparation. If I were to just rush out on the road, it wouldn't live up to the expectations. A show takes months and months of preparation and practice and also coordination. I'm trying my hardest to fit the emotion into the stadiums and arenas and not just get onstage and sing. I really want people to leave saying, "Man, I never experienced anything like that in my life. I'm compelled; I've been inspired."
Looking down the road, where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
Having an expectation may sell you short; you may never know how much is out there for you. So I allow myself to be free and creative and allow my art to lead the way. I don't know where I may go. But I continue to utilize art as a way of articulating and expressing myself. And I continue to dream.
Houses of Usher
Along with his music, Usher Raymond has his fingers in plenty of pies. Here are some of his extracurricular activities:
Usher made his big-screen debut in the 1998 horror flick The Faculty, and has put together a pretty eclectic highlight reel since then, with roles in 1996 drama Light It Up, the 2001 western Texas Rangers and the 2010 hitman rom-com Killers. He's also appeared on TV in everything from Sesame Street to The Bold and The Beautiful. In April, he took to the off-Broadway stage in New York City, joining avant-garde dance troupe Fuerza Bruta to showcase his new album Looking 4 Myself by taking the lead role in their Cirque du Soleil-style show Look Up. Next year, he'll return to the big screen in his most prestigious role to date: He'll play boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone, which co-stars Robert De Niro, Gael García Bernal and Andy Garcia.
Usher has made a lot of smooth moves in his career. But perhaps the smartest has been signing an unknown 14-year-old Canadian kid named Justin Bieber to his Raymond Braun Media Group, a joint venture between Usher and Bieber's manager Scooter Braun. The Beeb's much-anticipated third album Believe drops June 17, a week after Usher's Looking 4 Myself. But he insists there's no rivalry between them -- not even friendly competition. "More than anything, there's a celebration," he says. "We did the same thing with our last albums as well -- we were able to piggyback the launches." He describes his friendship with Bieber as "a genuine, one-of-a-kind relationship. It was built out of business, but we don't have a business relationship. It's like a family relationship, man. And most great business are built off family."
Music hasn't done too badly for him. But Usher isn't putting all his eggs in that basket. Back in 2005, he became part-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, ponying up an undisclosed amount as part of a $375-million buyout. He became the third pop artist to own a large stake in an NBA team after Jay-Z and Nelly. If he gets hungry after the game, Usher also reportedly has stakes in several restaurants.
When he isn't raking it in, he's spreading it around. Several years ago, Usher founded the charity organization New Look, whose goal is to provide youth with education and real-world experience. The organization also helped rebuild parts of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Usher performed at a relief concert following the disaster.