Usher: 'I'm not intimidated in any way'
Nothing fazes Usher. Not appearing alongside Robert De Niro in his film debut. Not acting as a father figure to Justin Bieber. Not even writing about his own father's demons in his lyrics.
The pop/R&B bigwig known to his fans by the mononym Usher, to his collaborators as "Ush" and to protégé Justin Bieber as "Big Bro", is talking about dynasties. About families and children, and responsibilities thereto.
His full name is Usher Raymond IV. The American singer and songwriter called one of his sons Usher Raymond V. It's not quite Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, naming his heir apparent Prince Michael Jackson. Or, indeed, naming his second son Prince Michael II. And, as Usher laughingly points out, he's a ways to go before he matches boxer-entrepreneur George Foreman naming his five sons George.
But still. This is a man who titled his last album Raymond v Raymond, on which he began the song "So Many Girls" by intoning, "The king is back... Usher, baby..." He's a honey-vocalled smoothie who has sold 65 million records worldwide, has released four perfumes all bearing his imprimatur, and has a business portfolio that also encompasses a soon-to-be-launched clothing line and a stake in basketball team the Cleveland Cavaliers. He likes his own name – his brand – a lot? Why?
"I think my father's death had a lot to do with my decision to name my son that," replies the 33-year-old in his soft speaking voice. "He was born and he died months apart. And I had become reacquainted with my father in the last year of his life. Prior, I didn't have any conversation, dialogue, with him."
"Your whole life?"
"Not my entire life. As a child I saw him a few times, but [it was] not the type of relationship or rapport that a man should have with his children. So it was an ode to the lineage of who we are."
This lineage is not, on paper, the kind one imagines a man wanting to ballyhoo so loudly. Especially considering Usher's immediate background. Indeed, the businessman, one-time child star, hit machine ("OMG" with Will.i.am, "Without You" with David Guetta, "The Christmas Song" with Bieber, and "You Make Me Wanna...", "Yeah!", "Burn" and "DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love" with himself), actor (he's playing boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in an upcoming biopic) and mentor/patron of Bieber doesn't seem to know much about his ancestry. Of the first Usher Raymond, all he manages is a vague, "I know he was a very passionate man..."
His own father left his mother when Usher was aged one. In his early teens, Usher moved to Atlanta to pursue his dreams of a career in music, his mother acting as his manager. It was a journey replicated some 15 years later by Bieber – another adolescent from a broken home, relocating to America's powerhouse city of the black entertainment industry. Another boy and his mum and his ambition.
But Usher doesn't think this coincidence has anything to do with why he and the Canadian youngster hit it off, or why he took him under his wing. The only "strategic" significance Usher sees in his and Bieber's embryonic relationship was when he introduced the wannabe singer to LA Reid. He's the record-label executive who had previously acted as shepherd-cum-sherpa to the teenage Usher as he navigated the foothills of the music industry.
"For me the stars had to line up," Usher says of the reasons he took a punt on the then-unknown youngster. "Which is why, when I first met Justin, I said, 'If it's truly meant for us to work together, I'll see you again.'" At their first encounter, Bieber attempted to audition for Usher on the spot, on the pavement, outside a studio, "in the cold. He was very adamant." But Usher told him to come back and make an appointment. "I believe in ordained, organic occurrences, right? And that was one of them."
Four years on, Usher is co-manager of Bieber and a father figure to the teen superstar. It's a role he relishes, and not just because it's very well-remunerated: Usher is big on paternalism. "I never hated my father. I would have named my child Usher regardless. I never hated myself because I carried his name, because I made it mean what I wanted it to mean.
"We're in a time with African-American boys when parents can't come to some amicable agreement where they can parent and grow," he says, somewhat confusingly, "and a lot of it could potentially be substance-driven. My father was a substance-abusive man. Not a drinker but on many different other drugs."
"Heroin, cocaine, the lot?"
"It could have been all of those," Usher nods. "Cos we never really discussed it in detail. I never wanted him to go through the anguish of being reminded of his past. But I did want him to be clear, and he was honest with me and that was enough. If he had run away from it and said, 'Oh, your mother went and did that...'" Usher says, tailing off. "But he was a prideful man and he said, 'I have nothing bad to say about your mother and I own and take the responsibility.'"
Usher likes that, and seems to think his father died "as a result of making right those things that had been wrong for so long. It hurt me not having a father – certain adolescent issues would have been easier to cope with if I'd had a father there."
Usher has expressed some of these thoughts a little more concisely in a song on Looking 4 Myself, his new album. "Sins of My Father" talks about addiction "or maybe just numbing agents. Things that take your mind off life and [how], as a result of not having a father, you're left to deal with a specific type of person. Almost like a curse. And I think I've been able to challenge some of those things. And hopefully my children won't go through the same issues because I'll be there to nurture them through. My philosophy is I'm raising future adults, not children."
The elephant in the room? Another Raymond v Raymond: Usher's ongoing court case with his ex-wife. Three weeks after our interview in New York, Usher will take the stand in an Atlanta court as he and Tameka Foster – they divorced in 2009 – continue their custody battle over their two sons. There will be allegations of substance abuse directed at Usher, and there will also be allegations of a fight between Foster and Usher's current girlfriend, Grace Miguel – who, today in New York, is also in the room.
For legal reasons, of course, Usher can't and won't be discussing the case in our interview. But as we speak in the dark, comfortable lounge of a Manhattan hotel, he certainly talks around it. Maybe his occasional incoherence is him attempting to bite this tongue. Families, children, responsibilities – it's clearly preying on his mind.
All that said, he concludes with a smile, he won't be naming a further offspring Usher Raymond VI. Usher Jr Jr Jr Jr Jr – #5 – can go down that nomenclature route if he feels so inclined. "I'm all Ushered out."
I know how he feels. Not, I should say, in an entirely bad way. Yes, he has an ego you need crampons to get over. But as superstar-CEOs go, Usher is smart, warm, smiley, friendly. And Looking 4 Myself is a great album, a country mile from the lubricious sex-R&B which made his name, embracing instead left-field pop songs and percussive dance tunes co-written and co-produced with Diplo, Pharrell Williams and Swedish House Mafia. And despite living half his young life in the spotlight, he's not entirely disappeared up his own portfolio: even his eyes twinkle at some of his more outlandish statements.
But, OMG, he doesn't half spout all manner of airy blather, comic-book homilies and non-sequitur fluff.
On Bieber's progression as he prepares to release his second album: "You can't fake being a star. But you can also become a great personality."
On the mix of styles on Looking 4 Myself: "This is a very unique experience, no different than this hotel. This hotel [decoration] is very beautiful; you have Indonesian, you have Asian, you have British, you have French. But it all manages to work together. That's what music as a culture has become. It isn't one tonal [sic]."
On his work with cutting-edge producer Diplo on his recent – and brilliant – single "Climax": "It made me understand how to be comfortable in sharing my vision – and it was that we would allow the entire world to become aware of what is going on on the other side of the pond. I want England to understand – the rest of the world to understand – what is going on in America. And I want America to understand what is going on in the rest of the world."
And he can accomplish that all with one song?
"Not only just with 'Climax', but with this entire album... In the making of this album, in the making of this experience, I've been to a lot of different places, right?
Right. After hearing all this, my brain hurts. And so does my neck. I spent the previous evening gazing upwards as Usher ran on an elevated treadmill, swung through the air, and crashed through suspended polystyrene brickwork. He was performing in Fuerzabruta, an off-Broadway theatrical/dance "experience". Usher was launching his new album with a starring guest role in the "edgy" underground dance show, at which all the evening's music would come from Looking 4 Myself.
Now, Usher can dance, and looks great in a vest. But Fuerzabruta seemed to promise laughably self-indulgent tosh, a load of choreographed nonsense in the service of an A-lister's fantasy version of himself. It was fantastic.
As it began, the audience stood (no seats) in the middle of a darkened square space, the ceilings high, the "walls" curtains. Dry ice was pumped in, the music pumped up, the lights dimmed further. Shadowy figures started pushing us round the room. Who was putting on this show, the CIA?
Then out of nowhere, Usher appeared above our heads, pumping his arms and legs on a treadmill in the middle of the room. The music – his music – got faster. Now Usher was sprinting. He tore off his shirt, staggered as he was "shot" in the chest, and dodged the professional dancers who ran and writhed around him.
Soon the dancers were tangling and tangoing 30ft in the air, cavorting horizontally round the perimeter of the room. Usher was harnessed for safety but he gamely and successfully dived into most of the routines.
Stuff fell from the ceiling on to our heads. Girls fell from the ceiling on to our heads: a giant paddling pool with a see-through bottom was lowered towards the floor, four of the female dancers flat on the watery base, sliding and writhing, athletic water-nymphs wrapping round each other and crashing limb into limb, groin into groin. Eventually they were lying an inch from the top of the heads of the tallest audience members, sodden flesh and curves squished against the clear plastic. It was like a mermaid perv-dream.
"You're right!" beams Usher later. "That's the only way I would depict it as well. You see these several sexy women together, with water flowing... It was just sensuous and beautiful and it was just like, I want one of those! Can I have one of those – and the girls to go with it?" This acquisitive man with a fleet of luxury vehicles, including a boy-racer Ducatti motorbike, all of which he's customised matt-black, laughs delightedly.
Soundtracking the whole paddling-pool sequence is "Raining Inside Your Bed" – a new song in which, Usher tells me the next day, "the walls are starting to precipitate".
I ask him: what are we talking about here, a sex session that's especially sweaty and physical? He laughs. "It could be interposed [sic] any way. We know she didn't have a wet dream, ha ha ha ha!"
Usher decided to launch Looking 4 Myself in this manner because, having seen Fuerza-bruta in its normal incarnation, he realised the show's characters and, such as it is, narrative, were a perfect fit for his new album.
"The metaphor for what the Running Man means is, I'm searching for something. I'm looking for something. And I'm tired, but I'm still breaking these barriers – then I take a shot! Oh no! But I gotta get back up and keep running!" he continues, all hand-waving animated. "Those metaphors are inside the music."
His collaboration with Pharrell Williams is "Twisted", a vibrant reboot of old rock'n'roll sounds, partly inspired by the Twist dance and partly by – as Usher calls him – "Domino Fats". The lyrics sound as if they're about the singer being twisted up by someone. Is that him talking about his ex-wife?
"Nah, it's not," Usher says firmly. "And it's funny because I knew that people would potentially assume that. And me and Pharrell talked about it – and he explained it to me as we were writing. 'Nah,' he said, 'that's not what it's about, Ush. What it's about is a person who... is...'" Usher searches for the phraseology... "'going through something that he can't understand and can't control this woman's emotion. And it's a song that actually celebrates women.'"
"Then the other side is this guy saying, 'You gotta be twisted if you think I'm gonna accept this.' Then there's the triple-entendre of just a woman twisting her lipstick."
And might there be a quadruple-entendre of a woman twisting Usher's heart?
"Well, that guy definitely felt that emotion, you know? Ah, but I didn't create 'Twisted' in anyway to represent, you know, a previous occurrence in my life, or relationship."
Even more broadly then, simply judging by its title, could we call Looking 4 Myself a post-divorce album?
"This album has nothing to do with my divorce," he says quickly. "This album has something to do with me. Me as a person, searching [for] my creativity, exploring my creativity. The someone I'm looking for is myself, not a person, not a woman."
But even if he was looking for a woman, Usher didn't have to look far. His girlfriend, Miguel, is his manager.
At the close of Fuerzabruta, one of the stagehands had told me that the troupe's professional dancers were more than impressed with Usher's gung-ho participation, which he repeated at a second performance later the same evening, and again the following night (Bieber came to that one; "Big Bro" and li'l bro had a "dance-off" in the middle of the audience). He only had three rehearsals, and in the entire history of the globe-trotting show, only one other guest artist had been game enough to take on the leading role, and that was a Russian pop star in Moscow. It was a physical, intense and not-a-little-dangerous hour-long routine, and it had ended with Usher flying down from a 20ft-high platform and bursting through that polystyrene wall. "That's how you find euphoria!" he beamed to me afterwards.
He's currently finding euphoria – and possibly distraction from that court case – in other arenas, too. Usher is in the thick of training for his role as Sugar Ray Leonard, in a soon-to-be-filmed biopic of Roberto Durán. In Hands of Stone, Gael Garcia Bernal is to play the Panamanian boxer and Robert De Niro is his trainer Ray Arcell.
His physical preparation for the role made tackling Fuerzabruta "much easier, but I'm definitely taking a pounding", he grins. He's been training in Atlanta and Los Angeles, "in sweaty gyms with young up-and-coming stars, who are just optimistic. Just being able to see the hunger in their eyes has definitely given me the understanding of where Sugar Ray was in that time."
What was the appeal of the part? "It was proper casting," he shrugs. "I was selected. They approached me to do it. And all I had to was consider it."
But still, even for a man of Usher's chutzpah, he's about to climb in the ring with De Niro and Bernal. For all his "proper casting", they're proper actors. Is he intimidated at the prospect? "Not at all," he says, "not at all. There's a respect for both parties. I've seen Oscar winners come out of left field."
Does he think he can win an Oscar here? "I'm just saying Jennifer Hudson," comes his reply (it's not a denial), by which he means: Hudson, an American Idol runner-up, won an Oscar for her first-ever film role, in Dreamgirls. "I'm not even saying..." he begins. "You asked me, is it OK to assume that an actor who doesn't have as much skill can't out-act an actor who is well-decorated? And what I'm saying is, if you take a moment to just analyse... No," Usher decides, "I'm not intimidated in any way. Because there's a shared passion and respect among all of us, and it's the type of script that will allow all of us to shine.
"I don't know if this is the one that would win me an Oscar or not. I'm going into it offering my interpretation and my hard work and my dedication to be the best Sugar Ray ever. Or as good as the man can be. I've spoken to him, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to live up to him. But I'll try to be better than him."
Then Usher laughs. He knows that's a ridiculous ambition. Or does he?
Usher's new album, 'Looking 4 Myself', is out tomorrow on RCA. He will be performing tomorrow night at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London W6
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