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Usher: The Billboard Cover Story

March 12, 2010

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, Calif. Clad all in black-from tennis shoes to the shades he never removes during an hourlong interview-the singer is there to rehearse for his Feb. 27 performance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His quiet fortitude on a rainy afternoon becomes all the more compelling-and fitting-when it’s learned 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 the March 30 release date approaches for “Raymond Vs. Raymond.” It’s the often-delayed follow-up to his 2007 album, “Here I Stand”-and the first since his much-publicized 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 tracks 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,” Williams says. “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 Vs. 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 shit off you; you’ve got to have some fun,” says Mark Pitts, who A&R’d the project and is 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 do him.’ That was our approach.”

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 Johntá 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 Vs. 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.”

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