NEW YORK (Billboard) - Outside the windows of a 36th-floor conference-room suite at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the morning is gray and befit for April showers. Always the trendsetter, R&B star Usher has plucked from his wardrobe a navy blue military-style button-up adorned with gold clasps to complete his jeans-and-sneaker ensemble.
He’s in town to promote his fifth album, “Here I Stand,” due May 27 via Jive, and to premiere the video for his hit single “Love in This Club.”
The synthy club track rocketed from No. 51 to No. 1 in its third week on the Billboard Hot 100 in March — the third-highest leap to No. 1 in Hot 100 history and Usher’s eighth chart-topper.
“This is the ‘Design of a Decade’ and then some,” Usher says of his new disc, making a reference to Janet Jackson’s compilation of classics. “I’m more excited about this album than I was about the last.”
Usher is a tough act to follow, though, even for Usher himself. His last album, 2004’s “Confessions,” has sold more than 9.5 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Since “Confessions,” the 29-year-old entertainer has stayed active on a number of fronts. He starred in a Broadway musical (as Billy Flynn in “Chicago”). He changed publicists and talent agencies. (He is now at Creative Artists Agency.) In May 2007, he fired his mom, Jonetta Patton, as his manager and replaced her with Benny Medina, whose clients include Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez. He married stylist Tameka Foster and became a father for the first time.
In that time, too, the music business has taken a big hit. Though file-sharing is usually blamed for the downturn, Usher also cites a lack of quality material.
“This industry is not producing an awful lot of substance-filled records,” he says. “You’ll get a Justin, a Kanye West, a Jay-Z that’ll come out with a banging album, or a Chris Brown, but every so often you need to have a big monster like Alicia Keys or somebody like that. So (Jive) was like, ‘We got to get you back in.’ And I wanted to.”
Amid all the business and non-music distractions of the past two years, Usher kept creating new material in his home studio in Atlanta. Early in 2007, he reconnected with longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri, who co-produced several “Confessions” tracks, including “Burn” and “Confessions Part II.”
“The most important part to me is to make sure that I’m always creating something new, giving you a new sound,” Usher says. “That’s why I work with Jermaine Dupri before I work with anybody else. And I put emphasis on making sure that this album was more musical than anything, because I wanted it to step outside the norm.”
But the homecoming hasn’t entirely been smooth. The behind-the-scenes shifts led to an unstructured launch for “Here I Stand,” starting with the leak of the club track “Dat Girl Right There” featuring Ludacris late last year. Then the Young Jeezy-featured “Love in This Club” leaked in February. But the enormous chart climb quickly eased concerns. “The greater part about it,” Usher says, “is the fact that people are antsy for a record, so they’re going to grab onto it.”
When Usher Raymond started out in the business, he was still a boy. Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who is now chairman of Island Def Jam, signed him to Arista when he was just 13. Throughout his decade-plus career, his sales and popularity have risen on steadily. Released in 1994, his self-titled LaFace debut has sold nearly 300,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Its follow-up, “My Way,” went gold. Then in 2001, the six-times-platinum “8701” all but solidified his superstar status before “Confessions” hit three years later.
Usher insists that it’s his compelling tales that have kept registers ringing. “It’s like an autobiographical experience every time you hear an Usher album,” he says. “I don’t just release records. I don’t put things out and just allow them to fly. There’s always a story.”
More often than not, those stories have become hits, from the “U Remind Me”/“U Got It Bad”/“U Don’t Have to Call” series of No. 1 singles off “8701” to the “Yeah!”/“Burn”/“Confessions Part II” narrative of “Confessions.” This time, again, Usher’s game plan is simple: Tell a story.
“The premise of my story is, ‘You truly aren’t a king until you really find your queen,’ and I felt like I found someone who’s the foundation for my life,” he says. “I married her and had a child with her, so that’s going to definitely raise a lot of eyebrows, but I don’t really listen to the negativity. I hear it, but at the same time this is my story and you can’t tear it down if I don’t let you.”
For the new album, Usher set out “to create a record that was just full of hits from the beginning to the end, nonstop. I really wanted it to have different levels,” he says.
“I think that it does. I think that it speaks for the intimate settings. I think it speaks for the good times that you have. It speaks at times for the temptation that you may approach as a man who is in more of a stable situation, the decisions that you make and ramifications for making a bad decision. Then also ultimately, those major steps in your life, the ones that really matter.”