Category: Usher

Exclusive: Usher explores his back catalog

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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.”

RELATED: Usher finds a fresh groove in 'Looking 4 Myself'

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:

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Album review: Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself'

UsherLooking

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

In a 2010 interview, Usher Raymond IV was asked about his then-recently unveiled new hairstyle, a so-called “faux-hawk” that was popular at the time. The multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning R&B singer known the world over as simply Usher replied with a bold statement on his work to come. “I'm a consumer of culture and love mixing styles and inspirations, both in my music and my style.” He then said he was working on a new creation that "combines several music genres to create a new sound experience.

“I love that people are talking about the new hair,” he added. “It represents who I am now and the creative movement of Revolutionary Pop.”

Two years later, Usher has changed his hairstyle and survived another messy divorce, and the question now comes as to whether his new, seventh, record, “Looking 4 Myself,” represents his predicted Great Leap Forward into a new realm of revolutionary pop. Few artists, after all, can claim to have created entire new genres, and fewer still are brash enough to say it out loud. Most who claim such a feat — Prince, Elvis, Kraftwerk, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, James Brown, Madonna — behaved as though their innovations were a given and didn’t need to harp on them.

So how revolutionary is Usher’s pop? Is “Looking 4 Myself” a “new sound experience”?

It’s more pop than it is revolutionary, but within its 14 songs are a number of fantastic steps forward (and back, and to the side, and twisting all around), key music that draws on a world of styles permeating pop culture in 2012, including electronic dance music, progressive R&B, dubstep, pop and hip-hop, to create an interesting hybrid pop. At its best, Usher and an impressive team of producer/collaborators, which includes longtime muse Rico Love, Diplo, will.i.am, the Neptunes and Swedish House Mafia, tweak the pop recipe enough to offer surprises. But the album is fat, and any revolution within gets nearly stomped to death by too many 130 beats-per-minute defeats.

“Looking 4 Myself” begins with an Usher benediction, declaration and demand: “Hey, what’s up? This is a jam, turn it up! Play it loud in the club, this is fire, it’s burning me up,” he sings as a hard, jerky beat produced by Black Eyed Peas founder will.i.am. marches forward lock step with synth clusters and the sticky doo-wop melody ripped from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” The first of many dubstep bass-drops — wobbly, bottom end synth noises as popularized by Skrillex — arrives a minute later, accompanied by beefy, off-kilter bass pound.

Revolutionary? Not so much, but it’s weirder than anything Lady Gaga’s done.

The album gets stranger from there, though, and 13 songs and an hour later Usher has made a convincing case for his revolution, even if it never fully comes to pass.

The strongest arguments on “Looking 4 Myself” are those on which Raymond, 33, steps outside of conventions, and they are legion, even if they’re often overshadowed by the kind of dancefloor bangers currently permeating the pop charts via artists such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Chris Brown and Lady Gaga.

But then Usher is partially responsible for the recent success of this formula. His early club tracks helped define the ’00s, and it’s hard to imagine the current crop of dance pop without citing the influence of hits like “OMG,” “Yeah!,” and (one of my favorite pop songs of the ’00s) “Caught Up.” On “Looking 4 Myself,” the best of these club tracks is the Danja-produced “Show Me,” featuring driving house synth-claps with a propellant techno rhythm bubbling beneath it. The most predictable, and less successful, are those produced by Swedish House Mafia, the progressive house trio whose beats are easily identified by their patent obviousness.

A number of surprises lurk within, though. “Twisted” is the most disruptive track on the album, and proves that production duo the Neptunes are still able to time-travel back from the future to offer another dose of innovation. The rhythm is ridiculous, the kind that the Virginia team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are experts at creating. Jim Jonsin’s catchy rhythm on “Lemme See” finds its groove when Rick Ross parks his Lamborghini on the track’s lawn for a cameo. (Pharrell, by contrast, raps of rolling on another kind of vehicle, “20 of us on Vespas and mopeds,” cruising the city and offering a girl a gift of white lipstick.)

The biggest outlier on “Looking 4 Myself” is Usher’s collaboration with Australian progressive electronic group Empire of the Sun on the title track. The song, which features Empire lead singer Luke Steele, is a new wave ditty with a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hall & Oates or later-period Steely Dan record.

For his part, it’s only natural that Usher Raymond is “looking 4 himself,” as the title suggests. After all, in the 17 years since his debut album, released when he was 16, he’s gone through two very public breakups, the latter of which  (divorce from Tameka Foster) happened in 2009 and fueled the singer’s last album, “Raymond vs. Raymond.” “Looking 4 Myself,” then, is the work of a man, as the slow-burning “Climax” so remarkably lays out, who is no longer married but has love and romance on his mind more than ever.

“I’m looking for myself,” he sings, “all my life I’ve been searching, and somehow I’ve come up empty.”

Then he adds that he’s been on a journey trying to find himself. “And I realized, when you’re not here, half of me is gone. So in order to find me, I have to find you.” Whether he ever finds the object of his desire is unimportant, at least from an artistic point of view. As long as he keeps searching, he’ll always have fodder for new work. And even if he finds her, could a sequel to “Raymond vs. Raymond” be far behind?

“Looking 4 Myself”
Usher
RCA
3 stars

[For the record, 11:55 p.m., June 12: An earlier version of this post said that Usher had divorced twice, but he has only been married and divorced once.]

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Photo: Album artwork from Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself.' Credit: RCA Records

Listen to Usher's Diplo-produced slow-burner 'Climax'

Listen to Usher's Diplo-produced slow-burner 'Climax'

Usher is offering the first taste of his upcoming studio album with a new Diplo-produced single, “Climax.”

Set for official release Feb. 28, the slow-burner was leaked Tuesday, just in time for all those Valentine’s Day nightcaps. “Climax” takes us back to the earlier work from the R&B crooner, recalling the younger singer who offered up woozy bedroom jams such as “Nice and Slow” and “Slow Jam.”

While listeners have for better or worse gotten used to this marriage of R&B-meets-electro, the single (unlike recent hits “OMG," “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” and "Without You") is rooted in pure soul, with Diplo employing sexy synths behind a dripping downbeat.

“Climax” was written by the singer, Redd Stylez, Ariel Rechtshaid and Diplo. His seventh studio album will be released later this spring on RCA Records.

Usher is currently enjoying a string of hit collaborations -- “Without You” by David Guetta, which hit the No. 1 spot on the pop charts, and “Promise” with Romeo Santos, which reached the No. 1 spot on the Latin charts.

Draw the curtains, light a candle and take a listen to “Climax” below.

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Calle 13 is big winner at Latin Grammys with 9 wins

Calle 13 dominates Latin Grammys

Puerto Rican alt-hip-hop duo Calle 13 reigned supreme at this year’s Latin Grammy Awards, taking home nine trophies, including the top award for album of the year, for the anti-establishment album “Entren Los Que Quieran.”

The stepbrothers -- René Pérez, who calls himself Residente, and Eduardo Cabra, a.k.a. Visitante -- were honored for urban music album (an achievement that came “without being played on the radio,” as Residente noted). Earlier they won for alternative song and best short form video (“Calma Pueblo”), tropical song (“Vamo' A Portarnos Mal”), and producer of the year.

Going into the night, they led all contenders with 10 nominations. Winners of two Grammy Awards, their nine wins Thursday night mark a Latin Grammy record, surpassing the previous record of five they held with Juanes and Juan Luis Guerra.

And their stately presence was felt from the start. The duo opened the show performing “Latinoamérica” and were accompanied by the Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar, a youth orchestra from Venezuela, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, current music director and principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Dudamel would later present the duo with the award for album of the year).

Latin music’s biggest night, now in its 12th year, was televised from the Mandalay Bay Hotel theater in Las Vegas on Spanish-language network Univision and was hosted by Mexican singer/actress Lucero and Chilean American actor Cristián De La Fuente. The night celebrated artists of various musical genres from throughout North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as Spain. Most of the 49 Latin Grammy awards -- including top albums in Christian, Latin jazz and flamenco -- were handed out during a preshow ceremony.

Among the other winners were: Rubén Blades y Seis Del Solar in the salsa album category for “Todos Vuelven Live.” Trio Alex, Jorge y Lena (which consists of multi-instrumentalists Alex Ubago, Jorge Villamizar and Lena Burke) won for pop album by a duo or group with vocal. And Puerto Rican singer Sie7e (otherwise known as David Rodriguez), who put out the 2011 album “Mucha Cosa Buena,” was honored in the new artist category.

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Black Ball benefit concert raises $3 million for HIV/AIDS aid in Africa

Alicia Keys Alicia Keys

The annual Black Ball benefit concert in New York raised more than $3 million for children and families in Africa and India who are affected by HIV/AIDS.

The eighth Keep a Child Alive event included performances by Black Ball co-founder Alicia Keys and guests Usher, Norah Jones, will.i.am and others singing songs by former Beatle George Harrison, who was saluted on the 40th anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh, the first rock music superstar benefit concert.

“I am overwhelmed by the kindness I saw last night,” Keys said in a statement issued Friday.

Keep a Child Alive started in 2003 and has generated more than $17 million and served more than 250,000 people through 11 clinical and orphan centers in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and India.

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Photo: Alicia Keys and her producer-husband Swizz Beats at the Keep A Child Alive Black Ball on Thursday in New York. Credit: Peter Kramer / Associated Press

Lady Gaga, Usher, Bono to play Clinton Foundation concert

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Lady Gaga, U2's Bono and the Edge and Usher are the first performers tapped to celebrate the 10th anniversary of former President Clinton's foundation with a concert.

Clinton's foundation has teamed up with Yahoo! for the show, called the “A Decade of Difference: A Concert Celebrating 10 Years of the William J. Clinton Foundation,” which is set for Oct. 15 at the Hollywood Bowl. The event will gather "the most influential and socially responsible artists in music, film, and television," with more artists expected to be announced.

“In the past decade, commitments to my Clinton Global Initiative have improved the lives of more than 300 million people around the world," Clinton said in a statement. "We’ve lowered the cost of AIDS and HIV treatment, combated climate change, strengthened economies, increased access to education and healthcare, provided financing and mentoring for small businesses. This celebration marks ten years of these efforts and demonstrates how much we can do to make a difference in the years ahead.”

Yahoo! will stream the concert live and feature highlights and interviews with the artists and other guests during and after the event.  

Pre-sale tickets through Ticketmaster are up for grabs starting Thursday, and tickets will go on sale to the general public starting Monday. Prices range from $62.70 to $273.62 (including fees).

More information on the concert can be found at clintonconcert.com.

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Photos: (From left) Lady Gaga, Bono, Usher. Credit: Los Angeles Times file photos.

Former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn speaks -- and spins -- on KCSN-FM show

Robert Hilburn and Keith Richards 
Former L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn will launch his new weekly radio show on KCSN-FM (88.5) on Sunday at 6 p.m. with a program of musical discovery.

The initial "Rock n Roll Times with Robert Hilburn" show will highlight artists who either sparked Hilburn’s passion for music early on or for whom, during nearly four decades covering pop music for The Times, he became an early advocate.

“The first song I'm going to play is ‘Baby, Let's Play House’ by Elvis,” Hilburn told me this week. “It's the record that made me fall in love with rock enough to write about it for 35 years at The Times.... I was getting ready to go to school at high school one morning when I heard it and wham: the youthful voice, the independence, the sense of freedom, the great guitar licks by Scotty Moore.”

Robert Hilburn portrait-LAT From there he plans to take listeners along to revisit what he describes as “favorite moments of discovery: the first night on the job (as a full-time pop critic) ... seeing Kris Kristofferson and thinking he was a modern, young Hank Williams. Then two months later seeing Elton John and thinking he could be the biggest pop star in the world, then a year later John Prine and thinking he was going to be the next Dylan (smile). Well, he did become a great, great writer.”

Other artists he’ll cover include Emmylou Harris, Al Green, Public Enemy, Kanye West, White Stripes and — to the surprise of no one who encountered his many references to the two acts he probably championed more than any others over the years — Bruce Springsteen and U2.

Since retiring from The Times in 2006, Hilburn has been focusing on writing books. His first, “Corn Flakes With John Lennon (And Other Tales from a Rock ‘N’ Roll Life),” was published in 2009, and now he’s researching a cultural biography of Johnny Cash. The first batch of shows will be prerecorded to accommodate his research, but eventually he said he hopes to do some live and take listener requests.

On the appeal of taking on the radio show, he said, “One of my great frustrations for 35 years at the paper was the fact I couldn't play a record for the reader when I was writing about an artist.

“How can you describe the beauty of Emmylou Harris' voice without hearing it, the sensual lilt of a Duane Allman guitar solo without actually hearing it or the growl of Johnny Rotten without hearing it?" he said. "With the Internet today, it is possible to do some mixed media things where you can write about an artist and link to a song or video by that artist. But that was unheard of in the  years I was at the paper. So I secretly yearned to have a radio show.”

In future shows, Hilburn said he plans to highlight artists who he thinks have been underappreciated, such as David Bowie ("Lady Gaga with real songs and an original persona"), to spotlight albums shelved or long delayed by record companies, great songs from the disco era and "the 10 songs that established rap as an art form."

Hilburn's show is part of an expansion of the Cal State Northridge-based station's adult album alternative (AAA) format under new program director Sky Daniels, who also has brought in former KCRW-FM deejay and music director Nic Harcourt, whose new show launches Saturday at 3 p.m., and another former Times staffer, Kevin Bronson, who brings his Buzz Bands column-turned-blog highlighting local music to KCSN on Sundays from midnight to 1 a.m. Monday.

“The idea is to have fun, but celebrate musical excellence,” Hilburn said, “in all styles of music, all generations. I want to reach listeners who went through the last 40 years of music with me and those who are curious about the music that changed the culture.”

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Photos, from top: Robert Hilburn interviewing Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter Keith Richards. (credit: RobertHilburnonline.com); Hilburn in later years (Los Angeles Times).

Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Carrie Underwood, Sting tapped for iHeartRadio Music Festival

Billed as "the biggest live music event in radio history," the two-day festival, set for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in September, also features Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj and Kelly Clarkson.

Iheartradio

Though summer has already had its fair share of big-ticket, multiday festivals, Clear Channel is kicking off fall with what it's billing as "the biggest live music event in radio history."

The radio conglomerate on Monday announced the lineup for the inaugural iHeartRadio Music Festival, and the roster for the two-day festival, set for Sept. 23 and 24 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, is quite the who’s who among Top 40.

Night 1 features performances by Coldplay, Alicia Keys, the Black Eyed Peas, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood, Bruno Mars and Jane's Addiction. While Night 2 has Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Kenny Chesney, Nicki Minaj, Rascal Flatts, Kelly Clarkson, David Guetta, Sublime with Rome and special guest performances by Sting and Usher.

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Concert business is up 11% in first half of 2011, Pollstar reports

U2 360 Anaheim-Arkasha Stevenson LAT 
The record industry isn't the only segment of the music business that appears to be on the rebound. The concert industry too, after a difficult year in 2010, is showing total revenue from the Top 50 tours worldwide is up more than 11% for the first half of 2011, according to Pollstar, the concert-industry tracking publication.

Totals from those 50 tours added up to $1.65 billion, despite a 2.1% drop in the number of tickets sold -- 19.4 million -- meaning the bump in the total box office came as the result of higher ticket prices on average.

The increase in the cost of concert attendance “was not expected coming off a down year,” said Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni. “It's possible that much of this is driven by artists playing smaller venues at higher prices or better artist packaging, which increases show costs but offers fans a better value for their ticket dollar.”

Ticket prices increased by an average of 13.6%, or $10.23, worldwide, Pollstar reported. The story for the North American concert business is even better, with total revenue on the Top 50 tours jumping 16.2%, to $1.12 billion.

The news comes on the heels of Wednesday’s midyear report on recorded music sales, which also showed an increase over the same period last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Leading the pack on the concert trail, not surprisingly, is U2, with a six-month total gross of $164 million on the latest leg of its 360 Tour, which has become the highest-grossing tour of all time. With an average ticket price of $97.65 in stadiums where attendance averaged more than 104,000 people per show, U2 took in a whopping $10.25 million per night.  Bon Jovi's top-grossing tour of 2010, by comparison, took in $201.1 million worldwide over the whole year, according to Pollstar's figures.

Behind U2 is Roger Waters, who has pulled in $97.9 million with an average ticket price of $112.99, followed by Bon Jovi ($921 million, $96.26 ticket average), Lady Gaga ($65.3 million, $96.77 tickets) and Usher ($62.2 million, $83.28 tickets).

Rounding out the midyear Top 10 are Kylie Minogue ($52.1 million, $100.33 tickets), Kenny Chesney ($46.7 million, $72.41 tickets), Andre Rieu ($46 million, $113.72 tickets), Elton John ($44.6 million, $96.71 tickets) and Taylor Swift ($42.9 million, $68 tickets).

“The increased admission price seems to be spread throughout the chart rankings,” Pollstar’s report says. “There were 12 tours on this year’s chart that charged more than $100 per ticket, as compared to only eight last year. Even more interesting is the huge increase in tours hovering just under the magic three-digit price point. There were 22 tours charging more than $90 this year as compared to 12 tours last year.”

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Photo of U2 singer Bono during the group's 360 Tour stop in Anaheim in June. Credit: Arkasha Stevenson / Los Angeles Times.

Usher talks 'OMG' tour, filling Michael Jackson's shoes and why he won't perform forever

L9vpltnc Usher has one thing on his mind with his latest tour: leaving his audiences saying, "OMG."

“That’s the whole point. You know, with an incredible record, I wanted to also leave a great impression. Live performance has always been my thing. It’s my purpose to master and capture the moment every time I have you connected,” the 32-year-old says of his tour, which hits Staples Center on Thursday.

“I wanted to make sure [the show] was state of the art. I wanted to make sure that in comparison to the other shows that are going on around the world, you get the type of experience that leaves you saying, ‘OMG.’ ”

The "OMG" tour, aptly titled after the will.i.am-produced smash from this year’s “Raymond v. Raymond,” marks the Atlanta native's (born Usher Raymond IV) return to arenas, his first big-budget spectacle since 2004’s “Truth Tour.” The trek supports the platinum-selling disc, which followed a bitter public divorce and launching of his protégé, pop phenom Justin Bieber, as well as the recently released companion EP “Versus.” Both discs were seen as critical comebacks after the lukewarm reception of 2008’s “Here I Stand.”

Raymond, always the consummate performer, said he was looking to up the ante with this tour. And judging from Pop & Hiss’ glimpse at his Anaheim show Sunday, he has. The futuristic-themed high concept show is heavy on the theatrics. Between hovering atop a platform suspended 50 feet above the audience, high-flying acrobatics and, of course, impressive footwork, he pulls off quite a show.

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