I first met Usher Raymond IV in 1993 at the Jack the Rapper convention. The 14-year-old R&B prodigy had been recently signed to a recording contract by LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid and was there to promote his debut single, “Think Of You”; I was an entry-level marketing rep for BMG Distribution, working with artists as they greeted their adoring fans. Though there was no clear indication at the time of the multi-platinum megastar he would eventually become, the barely pubescent singer was already as slick and polished as a four-star general’s shoes, greeting other artists and autograph seekers alike with a suave charm that belied his tender age.
Fourteen years later Usher is one of the world’s biggest pop stars, with about 30 million albums sold, numerous Grammys, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under his belt. And now, at the ripe old age of 28, the man who boldly proclaims his desire to inherit James Brown’s title of “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” has been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Raised in Chattanooga before moving to Atlanta at the age of 12, Raymond’s musical education began at a very early age. He started out listening to his grandmother’s old records, which included everything from old jazz and blues to R&B greats such as James Brown and the Isley Brothers. He was also steeped in the spiritual sounds of gospel greats such as the Winans, with his mother Jonnetta Patton serving as the director of his choir at St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga.
“I think I was more of a problem child than I was a good singer,” Usher admits with an embarrassed laugh, recalling his earliest performing experience. “I used to cause my mother the most problems. Here she is, the director of the youth choir, and I’m acting a behind every Saturday at rehearsals. I can’t remember how many times she kicked me out of rehearsals because I wouldn’t act right!”
Eventually Raymond began to take his performing aspirations more seriously: Influenced by artists such as Guy, New Edition and Michael Jackson, he began studying the classic artists who’d influenced them, including Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles and other stars of R&B’s early days. A naturally gifted dancer, he also studied the fluid movements of Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ben Vereen (who, coincidentally, is his godfather), and by the age of 13 was performing in Atlanta-area talent showcases.
“This guy named A.J. Alexander took me to the Atlanta Talent Search at Center Stage Theatre,” Usher recalls, “which I won three times in a row. By the third time, I’d had offers to perform on Star Search and Showtime at the Apollo. A.J. introduced me to L.A. Reid’s brother, who said he was blown away and wanted his brother to meet me. When I met with L.A., he brought all the females from the LaFace office in to hear me sing ‘The End of the Road’ their #1 single at the time. The ladies were going crazy, clapping and screaming because I was really catering to ’em, going down on one knee and kissing them and stuff, and he stopped the song halfway through. From there I started my career, and the rest is history.”
Within a year, the lead single from his Sean “Puffy” Combs-produced debut had gone gold, Coca-Cola had tapped his talents for a national ad jingle, and he had teamed with fellow teen sensation Monica for a remake of Latimore’s “Let’s Straighten It Out.” But it was only the beginning of Usher’s meteoric rise. After graduating high school in 1996, he moved in with hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri to begin working on his sophomore LP, My Way. True to its title, the album found the 18-year-old singer composing most of the songs, leading to Top 10 singles including the title track, “You Make Me Wanna” and “Nice & Slow.” Perhaps more importantly, the romantic, Paris-filmed video for the latter (shot by famed director Hype Williams) helped to established Raymond as a mature artist cut from classic R&B cloth.
“I think it was a little easier for me,” he says of the transition, “because I didn’t have a teenybopper approach when I first started. I had Puffy executive produce my first album, and it was music that catered to a more adult audience. But in general, getting recognized as a man in this industry has been a struggle because people see me in one way and in one format. As years went by, I became more of a man through my music, my life experiences and what I have to offer. When you look at what I do, from business to philanthropy, you can’t continue to look at the young Usher that used to dance and do backflips onstage, even though I’m still gonna do that stuff. You can’t hold me in one box because I do so much, while at the same time being strategic about how I do it all.”
In the late ’90s that strategy appeared to include acting, as Usher tackled roles ranging from a recurring turn as Brandy’s love interest on her sitcom, Moesha, to prominent parts in director Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty and teen flicks such as She’s All That and Light It Up. Despite the fact that he hasn’t had a role in a major film since 2001’s Texas Rangers, Raymond insists that acting will play an increasingly prominent role in his future.
“I took a break from it because I wanted to make sure that I found the right project,” he acknowledges, “but I’m looking and hoping that it’s gonna come very soon. In building a career, you can’t just keep shooting in the dark. You have to know exactly what types of roles you want to go after and surround yourself with the type of people who know how to build careers as an entertainment brand. When I look at what Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr. and Fred Astaire did with their careers—acting, singing and dancing—that’s what I’ve always wanted to be. I want to be a triple threat.”
Making It Real
In retrospect, Confessions was the album that inexorably altered Usher’s life. It all started with “Yeah,” the crunked-out banger of a lead single produced by Lil Jon featuring a guest spot by Ludacris, which became Usher’s first #1 hit. But by the time the album was released in March of 2004, much of the press surrounding Confessions focused on the surprisingly revelatory nature of the lyrics, some of which seemed to discuss the intimate details of the demise of his relationship with TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. On the positive side, the album sold over 1.1 million copies in the first week, the highest first week total ever for an R&B album; on the negative side, it also made Usher a tabloid staple, hounded by paparazzi everywhere he went.
“Anonymity is something that goes out the window when you become a pop star,” he admits. “One thing I’ve always done is stayed away from mixing my personal life and my business. It wasn’t until Confessions that I began to become a little more vulnerable and introduce people to a real view of Usher. As you get older, you begin to have more fortifying, life-changing experiences that make you a deeper individual. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, although I do hate it at times when people get things wrong. But at the end of the day it’s just people’s opinions, and you just have to hope that something positive comes out of it.”
For Usher, the positives included an opportunity to make moves in the business world at an age when most of his peers were still paying off their student loans. Inspired by James Brown’s advice to “make sure your money is right” and horror stories of celebrities who have a great showbiz runs still wind up bankrupt, Raymond became a minority owner in the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers franchise, co-owner of the Atlanta-based restaurant chain The Grape, and launched his own line of fragrances. Perhaps more importantly, he decided to give back to the community with charity organizations such as the New Look Foundation and Project Restart.
“I pledged to do something philanthropic years ago,” Usher recalls, “and I started thinking about all of the issues that we, as minorities, have in America. There are so many kids who look up to entertainers and athletes, but they don’t know that there are alternate routes to get to your dream. When they come to Camp New Look in the summer, we teach them about job options ranging from journalism and music video production to recording engineering. People don’t understand that sometimes the people around the artists make more money than the artists themselves, and that starting off on that level can lead to something more. Just look at Puffy: He started off in the mailroom, and now he’s a multi-millionaire! It’s important for us to encourage our kids, especially the minorities who tend to get overlooked.”
In between his business ventures and philanthropic efforts, Usher also found time to get married in August to girlfriend Tameka Foster, who was in the third trimester of her pregnancy at the time of our interview. Though the singer seemed unsure how these major life changes would impact his future songwriting endeavors, he insists that his music always reflects the realities of his life at the time.
“I try to be as honest, vulnerable and forthcoming,” he says, “because if you listen to classic R&B, that’s what made it what it was. That’s not so much what it is now, because that ideal is slowly but surely being torn down. I feel like R&B has lain dormant for years because people are afraid of feeling, so it seems like it’s becoming more like hip-hop. Men used to bare their souls and talk on social issues, talking about issues like segregation as a way to help people through it and comfort you. That intimate relationship with music is what I ultimately care about the most.”
As he prepared for his induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, which he calls “by far one of my greatest accomplishments of my career, especially given the fact that I started my career here,” Usher was also starting to work on material for his as-yet-untitled sixth album. Tentatively due to be released sometime in early 2008—a full four years after Confessions—the album is coming out at a time when the music business in general is in a sales slump, most hit records are little more than catchy novelties, and artists of depth and versatility are being increasingly relegated to the mainstream fringe.
These troubling changes in the industry are hardly lost on Usher, who insists that the urban music scene in general is decidedly lacking in substance and that R&B has never been more closed-minded. As he nears his 30th birthday, the man is clearly serious about breaking through the genre’s narrow boundaries and exposing listeners to a sound that combines elements of the past and the present to create a deeper shade of soul that will hopefully lead urban music to a brighter future.
“I’m taking it on my shoulders to try to show the diversity of what R&B can be,” he says of the new album. “It’s definitely a new concept with a classic feel. It’s well rounded and showcases my versatility and growth. I don’t discredit hip-hop or any other form of music: You should think about everyone from young men in the ‘hood to families in the Hamptons. From a musical standpoint, I went back to inspirations like Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, getting into the more sensual/sexual side of R&B. You’ll get a little bit of the ‘Godson of Soul’ title James Brown gave me. It’ll definitely be a wild ride, to say the least: The formal reintroduction of Usher Raymond IV.”