Exclusive: Usher explores his back catalog
When Usher sat down with The Times for a recent feature, the 33-year-old was ready to show that he’s still the most viable heir to the late King of Pop's throne despite the emergence of more youthful sing-and-dance prodigies like Justin Bieber (whom he mentored) and Chris Brown (his stiffest competition).
His latest album, “Looking 4 Myself” – projected to bow at No. 1 on the Billboard chart next week – showcases the singer’s current mantra to “evolve or evaporate.”
The current influx of global, electronic dance music in pop music provided the foundation for the album. It's another example in which the multi-platinum, Grammy Award winner meshed his old-school R&B and urban textures with fresh influences – something that has garnered the singer criticism in the past.
Before a recent rehearsal at Burbank's CenterStaging, Usher let us dig deep in his back catalog from a career that stretches back two decades where we asked him to offer snap judgements on a handful of tracks:
“Lemme See” (“Looking 4 Myself”)
Mean. You know what it is, the song has an attitude that I think helps to balance any element of confusion that we talked about. This puts you right back into the mind of "Oh yeah, Usher does this too." I’m working the falsetto again, but that’s Usher, baby, 100%.
“Follow Me” (“Confessions”)
One of my favorite songs. I was having the most fun ever. I was having the most fun I was ever having in life because I was finally able to sing the way I wanted to sing and speak about how complicated my life is and the fact that people think it's all smiles all the time. When it gets hard, it feels so good to have somebody there, like, right on time. That is a love, that is a relationship.
“Will Work for Love” (“Here I Stand”)
I went to a Bryan Adams show years ago and I remember sitting there and I didn’t know any of his records. I was like, man, this is really cool that his music connects the way that it does and I wanted a song that would pull people in and want to sing along. That was this record. When I heard this song it was just a new look for me, a new style. Something people didn’t expect.
“Can You Get Wit It” (“Usher”)
(Laughs) Just going back to the beginning. I think about Jodeci and it's so cool to be able to enjoy the music and then the people that you enjoy are making your music. That was the coolest ... ever. DeVante Swing is making my song? K-Ci came in to help me with vocals and I was nervous as hell. Being in the studio, I was so out of my element. It took me later on to get the issue of, you’re young and you’re talking about getting down.
“U Don’t Have to Call” (“8701”)
Once again just having a good time. I think I was going through … a bit of a hard time in a relationship I had just got out of. And I wanted to clear my mind, and this record helped me. I was actually in a relationship later on but that song made me think about kinda coming out of a relationship and thinking, 'You’ve gotta get up and go out and have a good time.' The club is always there. Your homies are going to be there to pull you through it.
“Get Used to Her” (unreleased, circa 2009)
Yeah that one right there was a problem. This is another dope one. You know the classic … (motions to finish playing the song). Well ... I was going through a very complicated period in my life in terms of a decision to choose a relationship that maybe my family wasn’t supportive of and maybe other people wasn’t supportive of. I almost felt like I was under a microscope. You go through the element of skepticism like should I do this, should I move forward? I was asking myself everyday, why are you here, what is the reason for this? The song says that. I stood up and said this is how I feel about you. That song didn’t make the album. I don’t know why, I think it may have been a little too aggressive. Sort of like the lost chapters of the Bible they make their way to the top. It ended up coming out because it was leaked somehow. I’ve got like full albums leaked.
“Okay” (“Raymond vs. Raymond”)
Yeah, this was the beginning of the futuristic and this new phase that I’m doing. When I did this record me and my brother [James "JLack" Lackey, who produced the track] were listening to ... that people hadn’t heard before. There was a group called Télépopmusik and I just learned about Empire of the Sun and a few underground artists. It was educational between he and I. There were all of these sounds. I don’t put myself in a category to be considered R&B or pop. I feel like I'm vanilla in that way where you can mix anything in there. I hate that it didn’t become a single. To this day I always hit T.I.P. about it because I wanted him to get on it. I played that record for him and another and he choose the other [“Guilty”] and I’m still like, I told you.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos: Usher during a rehearsal in Burbank's CenterStaging on June 2. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times