Cigar Aficionado

The Rise of Usher

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.

The album, which featured a harder edge than Usher's more popular subsequent releases, sold only moderately, a far cry from what the high school-age Usher hoped. The music business often moves too quickly to offer second chances and Usher knew it.

"I was disappointed," he admits. "Success has a million fathers but failure is an orphan and it wasn't fun to be an orphan. But that perception of failure compelled me to push forward. My mother, more than anything, pushed me to keep me motivated.

"I thought, ‘OK, this is the moment when you've got to show up.' Because, like they say, life is what happens when you're making other plans. So you go through some shit and you come out with texture and depth and appreciation. I was never going to be complacent; it's not in my nature."

Pitts, who met Usher during that period, says, "He was still a kid—and he's very hard on himself. His voice was changing at the time, so he was losing something but gaining something else. Plus there was a lot going on around him. It was disappointing, but he was 15."

Usher finished high school, then released his second album, "My Way," which yielded his first No. 1 single in the U.S., "Nice & Slow." Even as he toured in support of that album, he was branching out to acting, working as a regular on the series "Moesha" and landing parts in films such as The Faculty, She's All That and Light It Up, his first starring role. His subsequent album, "8701," sold four million copies­—and he won back-to-back Grammys for Best Male R&B Performance, something only Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross had accomplished before him. He continued to act in film and TV, at one point playing Marvin Gaye for the series "American Dream."

His fourth album boosted Usher to superstar status. "Confessions" sold more than 10 million copies, an increasingly difficult feat in a changing music industry whose audience focuses more closely on individual songs than full albums.

How rapid has the change been? "Confessions," released in 2004, was the 10th album to reach diamond status since the beginning of 2000. Subsequently, no other artist had put out an album that hit the diamond level until Adele's "21," released in 2011.

Even Usher couldn't compete with his own success. It feels like a contradiction to say that he's intensely competitive as an artist, seeking to reach the widest audience possible, but that he also has no interest in repeating what he's done before, often a formula for success. Yet both notions describe Usher's approach to his music and his career. His albums continue to sell, but he knows that "Confessions" was a confluence of a man and his moment, something that happens rarely enough.

"I'm at a place where I want to invest my time in things that are memorable because they make you feel something, something you haven't felt before from me," he says. "For me, it's about what's different from what I've done. I never want to do more of the same. That shit's boring. If I'm going to entertain you, let me entertain you. I'll do the work. I don't mind."

When he goes into the studio, Usher's work ethic is relentless, says Johnny "Natural" Najera, longtime musical director of Usher's live show.

"With him, it's always ‘Whoa—ain't no sleepin'. We've got to work,' " says Najera, who started 14 years ago as a guitar player in Usher's band. "He's a really hard worker. He knows what he wants and he knows how to communicate it in a way that inspires us to find it. He has a vision of what he'd like to express, what sound he's going for. It's a group effort, but he's absolutely the captain."

That's also true of Usher's stage show, which grossed $75 million in 73 shows in his tour in 2010-2011. Scaled to entertain audiences in arenas and stadiums, his stage show is a massive undertaking—and Usher is the detail man behind it all, Najera says: "He's so involved in every part of it. When you see a live performance by Usher, every facet of it—the lighting, the videos, the choreography, the music, how the stage looks—it all comes from him. The staging, the pyrotechnics, the dancing: he oversees it all. That's why he gets the results he does, because he's willing to do everything it takes to make it entertaining for the audience."

Asked what his influences are, Usher quickly jokes, "Love, life and heartache." When artistic influences are specified, he grows thoughtful.

"Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway," he says. "And Rick James and, of course, Michael Jackson." A singer he wishes he'd had the chance to see in live performance? "Freddie Mercury. His voice was amazing. He had one of the most incredible voices I've ever heard.

"But, in terms of influences, I'd also include Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I especially like Gene Kelly," he says. (Usher is so fond of Kelly that he made a tribute video to the dancer, doing a rendition of "Singing in the Rain.") "There was a point when being a dancer was considered effeminate. But Gene Kelly managed to make a theatrical piece feel like it could be done in a more masculine way," he says.

Usher can spend up to four months creating the choreography for himself and his dancers, plotting the shows with a choreographer and a creative director. He also dances just to stay in shape, along with boxing workouts, water fitness and cycling as part of his regular exercise routine.

"Dancing is so good. Music brings us all together in movement," he notes. He hopes to expand his own performance by playing drums onstage, as well as a little bass: "I just want to get comfortable with playing an instrument onstage."

His voice—an instrument whose elastic range runs from mellifluous insinuation to falsetto pleading—obviously has matured since his first album, recorded before his voice had finished changing. Yet he says, "I use my falsetto more than ever now. That's not an easy muscle or part of the voice to exist in."

His voice, he feels, is "my thing. No matter where I am, what genre I'm singing, the common thread is my voice. No matter what flavor—whether it's EDM (electronic dance music), pop, soul, R&B, even if it was country—the thing that you feel is the authenticity of my voice."

So when he relaxes with a cigar, his voice is always a consideration: "I don't smoke when I'm on tour," he says. "If I have a few days off, I might. I tend to celebrate with a cigar at the end of a tour."

Sitting in his smoking chamber, Usher is enjoying a Cohiba Corona, the variety made in the Dominican Republic. Usher will enjoy a cigar when he's on the golf course, but like many golfers he regrets not having enough time to play. "I don't get out too much because I'm always working," he says. "I wish I was good enough to brag about my golf game. I'm not as ambitious in that regard as Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan. They both assume they can be as good as Tiger.

"I like the smell and taste of a good cigar. It's a great fit that truly celebrates the occasion. There's nothing better than to open the doors in here, feel the summer breeze and have a nice cigar. And there's nothing better, when you're in a space where you're being creative. There's something about savoring a moment, rather than wracking your head to find a creative solution.

"I'm too young to consider myself a connoisseur. I just enjoy smoking cigars. And I'm not blowing smoke up your ass."

He started smoking cigars as a young man, emulating the producers and CEOs at the record companies where he worked: "I was introduced to cigars by L.A. Reid, although I remember hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger talk on TV about when he started to smoke," he says. "I remember seeing him smoke them and it made it definitely attractive. And (veteran record label executive) Tommy Mottola always had such great taste in cigars. He would say, ‘Here—try this great cigar I picked up in London,' or Capri or wherever. It was like you were getting a taste of his travels."

Usher has a particular affinity for Cohibas. "Cohiba was the cigar that introduced me to cigars," he says. "But I also like the occasional Trinidad, or Romeo y Julieta Churchills.

"I tend to like them milder because I smoke them right down to the end. Maybe I'm compensating for all the times I wanted to smoke one and didn't. When I smoke a cigar, I want to have the time to finish it. I hate starting it and then just letting it burn. Once in a while, I'll have a Cohiba Behike," he says, speaking of the Cuban Cohiba that once was named Cigar of the Year by Cigar Aficionado magazine. "But you don't want to smoke one of those unless you have an entire day," he says. "It takes time to recoup from one of those."

His house is hung with work by such rising contemporary art stars as Retna, Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj ("They think of him as their Warhol," Usher notes) and installation artist Kris Kuksi. He began collecting art as a teen, when he walked past a gallery in Los Angeles and was drawn inside by the graffiti-inspired work of Retna.

"I was 19 and this one piece really resonated with me because he used that graffiti style," Usher recalls. "The guy was right there in the back so I got a chance to meet him. I think I spent about $3,000, which was a lot of money to me. But art is subjective. It's a matter of how you see it. I tend to look to young, up-and-coming artists, as opposed to going for recognizable names. But I'm also interested in what will be relevant in time."

Usher has two young sons (Usher Raymond V, 6, and Naviyd Ely, 5), of whom he was given primary custody after a 2009 divorce. He understands how his being in the public eye can impact his children and keeps a relatively low profile; it's also a reason he lives in Atlanta, instead of Los Angeles: "Here, there's no one hiding in the bushes, trying to take their picture," he notes.

But he understands the reality of how the 24-hour infotainment news cycle has changed his business, whether it's about the evolution of reality television or having audiences distracted by attractions they find online.

"Everything has changed, and I think we've gotten away from mystique and perception," he says. "You still are glamorized as a celebrity. But when I started, it was all about creating a perception of who you are, a mystique, and not about people being able to touch the artist or know every detail of his life. Now we're in celebrities' living rooms through reality TV.

"Reality TV did away with the personal. There is no privacy. And the Internet has killed the music industry. People don't wait in line anymore at a Target or a Tower Records for a new CD to be released; they just download it. When you see companies like Blockbuster and Tower going out of business, you know the industry has changed."

That shift of power has made the popular musician's perennial problem even more acute: how to hang on to followers at a time when the mass audience wants to coronate (then discard) a new pop sensation seemingly every week. Staying on top for 20 years is an achievement, one Usher credits to the authenticity of his delivery, his emphasis on being real about the fundamentals: love, loss, power, submission and the other building blocks of the best popular songs.

"He's extremely competitive," Pitts says. "You may have a track with an old-fashioned melody, and what he does with it outlasts any current moment. I think of him as a Mercedes, instead of a Hummer. The Hummer had a moment, but the Mercedes is a classic.

"A lot of times, you may do a song with someone who does something very current to keep new fans coming in. But it's about the music and the songs; Usher keeps himself in fighting shape and sells every song. He's always trying to outdo himself as a performer. So even though he sings the same songs in concert, he always gives it a new spin."

He's taken three years between tours to work on music, spend time with his kids and try his hand at film work. He'd like to devote more time to acting, "but I'm not anxious to just jump into anything. I'm looking for roles where Usher can disappear and the actor can be released. That's why I wanted to play Sugar Ray."

Hands of Stone, due out early next year, is about Duran (played by Edgar Ramirez), who won the welterweight belt from Leonard in June 1980, then lost it to him that November in the famous fight that ended with an out-of-shape Duran saying, "No mas," and quitting after the eighth round.

Leonard, an Olympic champion who won professional title belts in five weight classes, felt that Usher understood the essence of boxing, in a way that few actors who play boxers do.

"He had transformed a basement into a boxing gym," Leonard recalls. "I wasn't expecting too much but when I saw him, I was, like, ‘Holy shit!' I was astonished. He was executing certain moves that I had and his footwork—it was so close to my style.

"In boxing movies, it's all about the punches: Can you properly execute a punch with that look of confidence in your eye? That confidence includes a little fear. You've got to have a balance of both. Fear's bad, but it's good because it keeps you sharp. And he had that."

He also had those abs, prominently on display in the fight scenes. Usher developed them as a teen; smaller than other athletes his age, he was eager to find something that would make him stand out.

"I was always athletic and, you know, everyone wants something they're known for," he says. "But I was 5-foot-8. It wasn't going to be basketball or football. So it was my abs.

"They're not easy to get, and they're harder to hold on to. I don't want to tie myself to abs forever," he says with a smile. "I like wine and Cognac too much for that."

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, hollywoodandfine.com. Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.