Post-divorce Usher returns with new attitude

Sun Mar 28, 2010 9:46pm EDT
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By Gail Mitchell

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - When Usher and his creative team began tossing around ideas for his next album, they had one goal in mind: to get his swagger back.

"I had checked out," the singer acknowledges. "I went all the way into being super husband and super dad, thinking, 'I've got to be serious all the time. I've got to be the man.' I put my swagger down for a minute, but I didn't throw it away. Now it's time to get it back."

Flashing a devilishly engaging smile, Usher exudes steely determination as he shifts position on a rehearsal room couch at Centerstaging in Burbank, California. Clad all in black -- from tennis shoes to the shades he never removes during an hourlong interview -- the singer is there to rehearse for his performance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. (He performed February 27 at Whistler Medals Plaza.) His quiet fortitude on a rainy afternoon becomes all the more compelling -- and fitting -- when it's learned that the room he's rehearsing in was last used by Michael Jackson while mapping his own anticipated return on the This Is It tour.

"It wasn't intentional," Usher says when asked about the coincidence. "But I love being in this space. That same energy is still here; it lingers. All I've ever wanted as an artist is to appeal to as wide an audience as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson."

Now all eyes are on Usher as the March 30 release date approaches for "Raymond v. Raymond." It's the often-delayed follow-up to his 2007 album, "Here I Stand" -- and the first since his much-publicized marriage to Tameka Foster ended in divorce. While "Here" eventually became a platinum seller (1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), fans' response to its more serious, mature tone paled in comparison to Usher's previous multiplatinum hallmarks, "8701" (4.7 million) and "Confessions" (9.7 million).

With three tracks simultaneously climbing the R&B and pop charts and the recent hire of a new manager, industry veteran and AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, can the 31-year-old divorced father of two recapture his swagger? Lamonda Williams, director of video on demand for Music Choice, believes that Usher is primed to capture the base he lost.

"'Here' was a transitional album that got him from the Usher we knew through his tumultuous marriage and divorce," Williams says. "Now you hear him boldly breaking out on the singles 'Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)' and 'Lil Freak.' There's an in-your-face cockiness, but in an 'I'm free' kind of way."

Despite a title that echoes the confrontational heading of a divorce filing, "Raymond v. Raymond" was never envisioned as a contemporary take on Marvin Gaye's 1979 marriage-rending epic, "Here My Dear." It was more about "we've got to get this old-man s--t off you; you've got to have some fun," says Mark Pitts, president of black music for Jive Label Group. "We said, 'We've got to get the guys wanting to be him and the girls wanting to do him.' That was our approach."   Continued...

<p>U.S. singer Usher performs following the medal presentation ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 27, 2010 in Whistler. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth</p>