The following story is the R&B cover of Billboard’s 2021 R&B/Hip-Hop Power Players issue, dated Aug. 7, 2021. To read the hip-hop cover story on Lil Baby, click here.
It’s late afternoon in Las Vegas, and the temperature outside is an ungodly “100-plus stupid,” according to a local newscast — the kind of weather that sends people scuttling to sit beneath the nearest AC unit. But down in the cool darkness of The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, Usher Raymond IV is busy working up a sweat.
He’s wrapping up the first day of rehearsals with the full cast and crew for his first Las Vegas residency, which will open in just 10 days, on July 16. Against a backdrop of a neon-lit city skyline that stretches the width of the massive stage, the superstar and his dancers — including several zipping about on skates — gyrate around a dozen floor-to-ceiling pillars that give the roughly 4,300-seat theater some added drama. He powers through some of his early-2000s hits in quick succession: “Lovers and Friends,” “Bad Girl,” “My Boo,” “U Remind Me.” Later that night, in a black-and-white backstage suite that was originally built for Céline Dion — it includes a dressing room, a kitchen, a conference room and a separate garage housing his motorcycle — he says he has been relishing the creative freedom of a residency like this. “I always put so much effort into the choreography of these songs and the emotional aspect,” he says. “But with this, I was given an opportunity to be a little theatrical, so I decided to make the show an evolution of all my work.”
It makes perfect sense that Usher would end up on a Sin City stage. Watching the lithe 42-year-old, even in rehearsal mode, is a reminder of the dazzling showmanship that set him apart from his pop and R&B peers when he first started scaling the charts in the 1990s. And with nine Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s to his name — tied with the Bee Gees, Elton John, Katy Perry and Paul McCartney for the 10th most in the chart’s history — he is a fitting choice to help welcome back Vegas nightlife with one of the first major residencies since the pandemic began. (It was originally scheduled to open last July, and completes a string of summer dates in August before returning in December.) He’ll be joined in town this year by returning residency headliners like Bruno Mars (whose Park MGM residency has grossed $29.1 million from 25 shows, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore) and Gwen Stefani ($22 million from 49 shows at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas), as well as Vegas first-timers like Perry and Carrie Underwood (whose shows will debut in December).
“This is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Amanda Moore, senior vp Las Vegas residencies at Live Nation Entertainment. “People want to party in Vegas, and there’s no greater soundtrack than Usher’s hits with their multigenerational and global appeal. I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that doesn’t know the words to ‘Yeah!’”
Usher: The Las Vegas Residency isn’t just arriving at a pivotal time for live music. It’s kicking off at a pivotal point for Usher, too. He hasn’t toured North America since the UR Experience trek in 2014. Despite his popularity as a touring artist, his team was a little nervous when it put tickets on sale last September, months before vaccine rollouts. “I knew there was pent-up demand to see Usher in this setting, yet we didn’t know if it was going to work against us,” says Julia Khan, who co-manages him with Patriot Management’s Ron Laffitte. “But people voted with their ticket purchases, feeling there would be light at the end of this tunnel.”
Usher also hasn’t released a proper studio album since 2016’s Hard II Love, which yielded two top 10 singles on the Adult R&B Songs chart but became his first album in 12 years to not debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, ending a four-album streak that began with 2004’s blockbuster Confessions. In that time, the growth of streaming has reshaped the music industry, hip-hop has become the dominant cultural force, and a new generation of R&B prodigies has revived the genre — and also made it more competitive than ever. But while the enthusiastic response to his Vegas residency suggests he could easily coast on nostalgia, Usher isn’t ready to settle into legacy-artist status just yet. “I would call myself ‘seasoned’ more than ‘elder statesman,’ ” he says, smiling.
Still, Vegas is just one part of a multipronged plan to reintroduce Usher and his catalog to the public, according to Laffitte, who took him on as a client two years ago. Laffitte was the one who suggested a residency to Khan — he also manages the Backstreet Boys, whose first Vegas residency, which ran from 2017 to 2019, was a springboard for a subsequent world tour and the group’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 in almost 20 years. (The group will return to Planet Hollywood for a Christmas residency in November.) “Usher understands what it means to level up,” says Laffitte. “Between hosting the iHeart Radio Awards [in May] and now the residency, the purpose was to reactivate and reenergize Usher’s multigenerational fan base at a time when youth is dominating with Spotify, Apple and other [streaming platforms].”
Usher has also spent the last few years working on his ninth studio album — his third on RCA — which he expects will roll out later in 2021. RCA is, of course, not a bad place to be for an R&B artist — right now, it’s home to next-generation powerhouses like Khalid, SZA, H.E.R., Normani, Doja Cat and Jazmine Sullivan. It’s also where Usher gets to work with longtime friend Mark Pitts, who was named label president in January. The two have history: A teenage Usher briefly lived in New York with Pitts and Sean Combs, who were rooming together at the time, while recording his self-titled 1994 album, and Pitts had a top A&R role at Arista during Usher’s early-2000s tenure there. Asked if he still sees that precocious teen in Usher today, Pitts laughs fondly. “The pain in the ass? Yeah, absolutely,” he says. “He was always singing in the hallways, whether it was the scales or something else from his vocal lessons. We’d be like, ‘Shut the hell up.’ And he still does that!”
Though Usher has steadily released new tracks in the last few years, Pitts credits Adult R&B Songs No. 1s like 2019’s “Don’t Waste My Time” with Ella Mai and 2020’s “Bad Habits” with “putting the battery back in the pack” for the new album, which was originally due last summer but postponed amid the pandemic. “That has given us time to make things as bulletproof as possible,” continues Pitts. “The game may be changing as to how new music is introduced, but what hasn’t changed is that it always goes back to making great, timeless R&B music. The rest will work itself out.”
Besides, Usher has always been a natural shape-shifter, building out his R&B foundation with forays into pop, EDM and trap — see 2018’s A, a joint project with producer Zaytoven paying tribute to Atlanta hip-hop — and working with everyone from Diplo and David Guetta to Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. A member of his team previewed half a dozen songs for Billboard, which feature a mix of old and new collaborators. There’s the Dupri-produced “Believe,” an uptempo breakup track; a new-lease-on-life anthem called “Fresh Air” produced by Mike Sabath (Lizzo, Meghan Trainor); and “Kissing Strangers,” a striking reflection on the aftermath of a relationship produced by the late busbee (Maren Morris, P!nk).
Collectively, those songs are reminiscent of the classic R&B sounds and intimate lyrics on a pair of his career-defining albums, 8701 and Confessions. Some of Usher’s most treasured hits have been the anguished slow jams that felt ripped from his diary, even if they weren’t strictly autobiographical, and Usher has lived a lot of life since his last album, including a divorce from second wife Grace Miguel in 2018. But there has been plenty to celebrate, too, including a new relationship with Jenn Goicoechea, vp A&R at Epic Records, with whom he is expecting a second child. (Daughter Sovereign Bo was born in September; Usher has two sons from his other previous marriage.) Even his voice sounds richer with experience. “He has always been an energetic singer and performer,” says RCA chairman/CEO Peter Edge. “But his vocals now are insane.”
Vegas, to hear Usher tell it, is where his story comes together: a chance to celebrate his legacy, sharpen his creativity and let his life off the stage thrive as much as his life on it. “I’m feeling like I’m about 18 right now — in terms of passion, not wisdom,” Usher says with a laugh. “There’s a playful nature that I think is coming back. I actually feel like I’m having fun. And that had been missing for some time.”
Why a residency, and why now?
I probably would have had a different answer before the pandemic. But after we shut down, it made even more sense. After a year of being isolated, there was an opportunity for people to come from all around the world and experience what felt like the reopening of life and entertainment. The other side of it is: I have a bit of difficulty bottling up all the different audiences I’ve collected over time. But the one place where you can speak to everybody is Las Vegas. It’s universal ground, a melting pot of people coming from all over America, Australia, India, Asia, Europe, Africa. There are tons of festivals, but Las Vegas gives you a different opportunity — a guarantee in some way. It has also afforded me the opportunity to really be the family man I’ve always wanted to be with an incredible partner I love very much.
You’ve always been a showman at heart. How did that inform your Vegas residency?
It’s hard for me to stand still. I work for every bit of applause I get. I try my hardest to give people an incredible experience. Because we’re in Las Vegas, you’ve got all types of shows, from burlesque to others that are more risqué, so why not take that opportunity to be as creative as possible? There’s a strip-club scene [in the show]. Skating is a part of my culture from Atlanta, and that’s something that I’ve never actually done onstage before. When I think of Vegas, I think Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis — those are the people who’ve inspired me to play in this space. I had a lot of time to think about the show, and I really do enjoy the added value of being immersed in a theatrical experience.
What’s your daily regimen like to prepare for this?
My preparation starts at six in the morning with stretching and yoga to wake my body up. Then I’ve been working out every day with an amazing trainer at a UFC facility. We work in water, lift weights and do a lot of core exercises, focusing on my pelvic floor, to make sure I can handle all the dancing, skating and singing I’m doing. I’m arming my body almost like an athlete, a boxer. Between 7 and 9 a.m., I have a little something to eat. By then, my body is warmed up just enough to work with my vocal coach. Then I move into a few meetings about the show, maybe work with the band, have a little lunch and squeeze in another meeting. I try to stop around six o’clock, review notes I’ve made during rehearsal. Then I get home around eight to spend time with the kids, have a little dinner and then decompress.
Listening to the new music, it sounds like you spent a lot of time soul searching and pressing the reset button — like many of us have lately.
I had already spent two years collaborating and recording with some of the producers I worked with on Confessions, like Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox in Atlanta. There’s always the responsibility to speak to the audience that has been growing with you, and also to a new audience. What I’ve always done is just try to make music that’s as true as I can possibly be and also offer something I think people can learn from and experience with me: relationships, love, life, the reality of our growth and maturity. But you’re right. I think this pandemic gave me another year to kind of reset, even though I did put out a few records and made some videos.
In 2019, you posted an Instagram from the studio with a whiteboard that read “Confessions 2.” Is that the title of the album?
I am not at the place where I’m going to sign off on the album title at this point. But I am working on an album, and it would be very smart to say it will come out this year. It’s probably too vague right now to determine whether it’s going to be in the Confessions vein or if it’ll be something else. It’s still kind of a moving target, as I’m just beginning to put together a sequence. Some of the songs that you heard have been at the top of my list for the last year. And you heard a few new ones as well. I do want to put together a body of work that speaks to all of the people that I’ve been able to capture as fans but also will be something unique to me and to R&B music that doesn’t just live in one space.
How do you feel about having veteran status in an industry so focused on the next young, new thing?
It’s not easy to sustain a career, but there are artists who have managed to do it and have been here for some time: Beyoncé. Alicia Keys. Justin Timberlake. Janet Jackson. And that hasn’t changed opinions about who they are and what their contributions still are. I just hope I’m in that same category. But it hasn’t changed my ability to embrace new artists coming up, like Summer Walker, Yuna, doing duets with Ella Mai or Chris Brown. I definitely understand the reality — and the idea — of embracing [the] new.
My mother used to always say, “When all else fails, just continue to do something good.” The more music you put out, the more people begin to understand. That’s why I stay creative and collaborative, working with up-and-comers like Mike Sabath. How people feel about my music has never been up to me. It’s up to their interpretation of how they feel about it.
Is there a song or album you wish the public had understood better?
I think people have understood the way they could have. And I was as sure as I possibly could have been from 8701 and Here I Stand to Looking 4 Myself, Confessions or Hard II Love. People are critical. But you continue to do it for the love. You do it for people to connect with what you’re trying to articulate. That pressure is there every time. That’s why I try to give myself as much of a shot as I possibly can by giving fans variety. You’re going to like something. (Laughs.)
How important are numbers — charts, streaming — to you now?
No. 1 is always going to mean a lot to everybody. But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, change your passion. It hasn’t changed mine, whether I put out a record that hit No. 1 instantly or took time to get there. I have a record company that’s willing to fight for it and get it heard, to connect with my audience and prospective new fans. I’ve tried a lot of stuff. There’s a way to play in R&B where you can be as creative as you want. Don’t cut yourself off — don’t feel you need to be tied so authentically to one thing. I see what H.E.R. is doing, what Giveon, Daniel Caesar and Justin Bieber are doing. But people choose to try and segregate [R&B music]. Sometimes it’s a bit odd that an R&B record with worldwide appeal has to go through a very specific funnel before the rest of the world can hear it. Why is it that an R&B record can’t just be launched and heard around the world?
Are you still involved in the Raymond Braun Media Group, which you cofounded with Scooter Braun?
Yes, it’s our production company. The only artist we have together in RBMG is Justin Bieber. We’re not doing any other projects currently, but we’ll be friends for life. I am on a remix of Justin’s “Peaches.” He doesn’t need me now. (Laughs.) But he asked me to do it. It has been great to be part of what was already an amazingly successful record.
In the recent Netflix docuseries This Is Pop, T-Pain said he battled depression after a conversation years ago in which you made harsh comments about his use of Auto-Tune. He clarified on social media that there’s no bad blood between you, but the story got a lot of attention. How do you respond to that?
I’m happy that T-Pain said something — I’m not sure if it was before or after our actual conversation, after I heard what was said. It was very hurtful to know that he had experienced that kind of hardship in life. I wouldn’t wish that on any person. Private conversations for me have always been intended to uplift. But when or if people get pieces of it, they can always have some other interpretation. But we’ve spoken since and we’re good.
In an interview last year, The Weeknd described hearing your 2012 song “Climax” and thinking it directly borrowed from his style, though he was flattered. You then posted a video of yourself singing those high notes, as if to say, “No one else can sing this but me.” Where do you two stand?
With regard to The Weeknd, he’s another person I had a positive conversation with who completely felt [the headlines were] a misinterpretation. Again, I can’t get caught up in what’s said outside when I know person to person that no harm was meant.
Fans have been clamoring for an Usher session on Verzuz. Is that on your radar?
I’m really happy to see what’s going on with Verzuz. But I don’t think I’m going to do it as of right now. However, if you want to hear a curated catalog of songs, come to Las Vegas. It’s waiting for you, baby. (Laughs.)
Outside of music, you were at the White House earlier this year when President Biden formally declared Juneteenth a federal holiday. What did that mean to you?
I’d heard of Juneteenth, but there was an awakening in me to investigate deeper and understand the reality of our history: We had to declare our individuality and independence because it gives us recognition, ownership and entrepreneurship here on American soil. It’s the ability to uplift and truly be a participant in what it is to be an American. Should I have been the person advocating for it as much as I did? I don’t know. But more than just making music, I wanted to use my life to be able to shine a light in that direction. I wanted people who didn’t necessarily know their history to understand. We deserve to have that day.
With everything going on for you right now, it feels like your 40s have become a clarifying phase in your life.
I’m really at peace right now. Part of it has to do with living long enough to have come through certain things. Time management now is very important — knowing what to choose to give your attention to and how that will determine your outcome. You can pick a job and do that job every day. Yet it may not necessarily be as gratifying because it feels like a regimen, an obligation. But I’m still in love with music and so glad I chose this as my life’s passion, because it continues to fuel me.