The Rise of Usher

Photo/Jim Wright

With sales of more than 50 million albums and the hit show “The Voice” to his credit, Usher’s star is shining brighter than ever

Usher's washboard abs are a set of stomach muscles storied in legend and song that seem to be chiseled from volcanic rock. They even impressed Sugar Ray Leonard.
The former multi-belt boxing champion was visiting the training facility where music superstar Usher—that's Usher Raymond IV on his driver's license—was working out in preparation for his role in the upcoming movie, Hands of Stone. The film is a biography of former boxing champion Roberto Duran, with Usher playing Duran's greatest opponent, Leonard. The boxing legend liked what he saw.
"He jumps rope better than I do," says Leonard, now a popular boxing commentator. "For an actor or a singer to play a fighter, it's about commitment. When he was hitting the speed bag, I saw that he had that commitment."
And then, of course, there were those abs.
"He had an eight-pack," Leonard marvels. "I only ever had a six-pack. He was cut up big time."
Sitting in his Atlanta home, the 35-year-old Usher returns the compliment, marveling about the day Leonard came to watch him train (and give him tips). "He's 58 and he looks 29," Usher says. "What is the recipe for that? Staying happy, I guess."
Happy? On this late May afternoon, Usher is practically beaming, still basking in the glow of the finale that week of NBC's "The Voice." In his second season as a coach, Usher wound up coaching the season's winner, a soul singer named Josh Kaufman. It was the first time in the show's six seasons that a singer coached by someone other than Adam Levine or Blake Shelton had won the show.
"For me, it was a reminder that people don't participate only because of their voice—it's the dream," Usher says, reclining in a room whose walls are filled with contemporary art and whose doors open out to a terrace, allowing him to use it as a smoking quarter. "It's Josh's talent, but it's also our coaching." He laughs, adding, "And I get bragging rights as the one who won, after six seasons of it ping-ponging back and forth between Adam and Blake."
"The Voice" is a talent competition in which four established music stars/coaches audition dozens of singers. They each select the ones they consider most promising, forming a team of contestants to mentor. One contestant is eliminated each week, until there is only a single singer left.
Usher joined "The Voice" to replace CeeLo Green for the series' fourth season, then returned to replace Green again for the recently completed sixth. The time commitment meant regular commutes between his home in Atlanta (he lives on a wooded, gated property in a neighborhood in the north-central part of the city) and Los Angeles, where the show is produced.
"This season taught me that the journey was the destination, that it was about the process," he says. "The story of each contestant is significant to the people watching. It's a story of compassion, of underdogs. Anybody can understand making a sacrifice to achieve a goal.
"I've been doing this a long time but this portion of my life is about giving. I'm there to support their vision. There's more to being popular than just being talented. There has to be more than a song."
Kaufman, a former SAT prep tutor who was fronting a soul band in Indianapolis, was initially chosen by Levine for his team. But when Kaufman was eliminated, Usher exercised an option to steal the singer for his own squad, then coached him to the title.
"His story was about how he balanced having kids and a marriage with having a career," Usher says. "He'd been doing it for some time."
Usher, an eight-time Grammy winner who has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide and has starred in movies and on Broadway (playing Billy Flynn in Chicago in 2006), understands that, even with a coach whose success includes a career that's been going strong for 20 years, it's about what the singer has inside.
"You should have talent before you start that uphill climb or you'll never get it rolling," he says. "For me, this show was about week after week of counseling with opinions about how you perceive what they're doing. I also helped supply that song, that idea—whether it's visual or sensory—that will help lead them to success."
The mention of counseling young talent brings up the name of Justin Bieber, whose career Usher helped launch. In the past two years, Bieber's name has become synonymous with too-much-too-soon syndrome, amid regular media reports of bad behavior in public. Usher, still a mentor to the young Canadian singer, shrugs and smiles.
"We're all God's children," he says. But he allows that he probably wouldn't have been able to handle the crush of media, fans and instant celebrity that Bieber had at such a young age.
"I can only imagine. I mean, it's a crazy journey at any age," he says. "Who knows what would have happened to me or if I'd even be having this conversation from this perspective."
Usher's "Voice" winner, Kaufman, is older than Bieber. Which may be why he was able to come back from his lowest moment on the show, when he was eliminated. He bounced back when rescued by Usher.
"From that moment, he never had a second where he declined," Usher says. "I came in with a new idea of who this voice is, what kind of records the country would like to hear from him."
That's always the trick—finding the tune or beat or mix that will catch the audience's ear and turn a record into the song that's being played at every club and party. It's something Usher has been working at—and succeeding at—since he was 15. But he knew what he wanted to do much earlier.
"When I was 8 or 9, I just really loved music, and I figured out what I wanted to do at 11," he says. "Even before I got into it—before I even tried singing—I just loved the way music made me feel. I attribute it to the type of people I was around at that age. I can recall my grandmother having these cookouts on the weekend at her house. This was back when there were record players. She'd put on records by Marvin Gaye, Gerald Levert. And it supplied the soundtrack that made it OK for us to all be here and feel like we should stay.
"I think that's why I always wanted to be an artist that any group could enjoy. You look at artists like Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson. When I was young, I'd think, what is it that allows my mother and me to like the same artist at the same time? I mean, I was 8 or 9 and I was enjoying Michael Jackson and so was she. And so was my grandmother. How's that possible? That, to me, represents success: when you manage to be part of the conversation with all ages.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, working at being relevant for all the different people I have over that time. I like everybody to feel that we're all getting something from this."
In May, Usher released the first single from his as-yet-untitled eighth album, an insinuatingly grabby tune called "Good Kisser." The video offers Usher singing and dancing (alone and with a backup group) and even playing the drums. While they're still "messing around with ideas for a title" for the album, says Mark Pitts, president of urban music for RCA, they went in to the studio knowing what they wanted—and what they didn't want.
"We said, ‘This time, we're not going to chase it—we're not going into it to make a hit,' " says Pitts, the album's executive producer. He has known Usher for most of his career. "We just wanted to make music we liked. And we really stuck to that. We put together a body of work that took him back to his core.
"We're looking at this album as if it's a season of ‘24.' We want it to sound like these are all songs that we recorded in a single day. There's that kind of cohesiveness to it."
Usher's process is ephemeral, with songs coming out of a feeling or a musical phrase that might pop into his head: "Sometimes I'll be having a conversation and I'll think of something, so I'll take my phone and record what it is so I can remind myself later. An idea can come from a personal experience, something I felt. There's nothing more gratifying. My music becomes a diary of what I'm feeling; there's not an artist who doesn't do that. But it's also fun creating music in the moment, when the studio turns into a party environment.
"When I was younger, I didn't know which songs would be hits; I was trying to find myself. But as I got older, I began to understand what people liked about me. And I learned that, if it felt good to me, it would feel good to them."
Still, you can't always tell. Take the case of "Yeah," the multimillion-selling song from his diamond-selling (10 million copies) 2004 album, "Confessions," the first of four No. 1 singles spun off from the album.
"It was not an automatic hit, at least to me, which is funny considering how massive it turned out to be," he says. "When I first got the song, it came from a producer who always gave everybody the same sound. The demo he gave me sounded like the same thing he was giving to everybody else. So I asked him if he could redo it—and when he did, it sounded like something that would be a hit record."
But, as he said, it took a while to figure those things out. While Usher has been working professionally for more than 20 years, his career trajectory hasn't always been upward. 
Born in Dallas, Usher grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his mother (a Tennessee native) and grandmother. His father, who was Haitian, left the family a year after Usher was born. Encouraged to sing by his grandmother after she heard him unleash his young voice in church, Usher joined his first singing group at 11. The family moved to Atlanta before Usher started high school, figuring the larger city offered more opportunities to be discovered.
At 13, Usher competed on "Star Search." Though he didn't win, he was spotted by a talent scout who recommended him to L.A. Reid. The one-time performer and producer was famed for his magic touch at spotting emerging talent, leading to his position as head of his own record label, LaFace (home to artists such as Toni Braxton, TLC and Outkast). Reid signed the 14-year-old Usher to a contract and LaFace released "Usher," his first album, when the singer was 16, with some of the production by Sean Combs, then known as Puff Daddy.
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