Considering that Usher Raymond IV released his first album at age 15, accepted his first platinum plaque from the RIAA at 19, and notched nine No. 1 singles before turning 37, it might seem counterintuitive to say that patience has been the key to his career longevity.
And yet the singer, who is set to receive a star Sept. 7 on the Walk of Fame, reflects on the importance of timing and long-game experimentation as he readies the release of his long-delayed eighth studio album, and prepares for general audiences to get a glimpse of him in his most high-profile film role yet, in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Cannes entry “Hands of Stone.”
The film, in which Usher plays champion fighter “Sugar” Ray Leonard opposite Edgar Ramirez’s Roberto Duran, offers an intriguing step forward for Usher’s wildly varied acting resume, which ranges from such highs as playing Billy Flynn in “Chicago” on Broadway, to starring in the long-forgotten “Texas Rangers” and “In the Mix.”
“My idea of artistry has always been: try everything until you find out what works,” Usher says. “So with film, I did everything to find out who and what I represented. I acted in sitcoms, in soap operas, in teen horror. I did this one thing for ‘Twilight Zone.’ I was just trying to figure out what was out there for me.”
Viewing his ventures into film as part of a continuum, Usher notes, “People tend to focus too much on anything that might not necessarily live up to being something great. But I’m not gonna say anything I’ve been in was a failure, because it’s all a part of getting acculturated to who you are. Imagine if Laurence Fishburne stopped acting at ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’ Or look at Samuel L. Jackson — he’s done everything, every type of role. You do it all until you find your place.”
For “Hands of Stone,” it was actually Usher’s skills as a dancer, rather than his filmography or resemblance to a professional fighter, that helped get him the part.
“I was auditioning lots of actors, and I wasn’t really finding anybody I was excited about,” recalls director Jakubowicz. “Then I was invited to [boxing coach] Freddie Roach’s gym in Los Angeles to watch Manny Pacquiao train. I asked Freddie if he thought there was a fighter who could play Sugar Ray Leonard. He said, ‘Listen, for Sugar Ray, you should find a dancer. He was so slick, and he had so much showmanship, that it would be easier for you teach a dancer to box than to teach a fighter to box like Sugar Ray.’ So I went home and started thinking, who’s the best dancer in the world?”
|Credit: Harold Daniels|
As soon as he read the script, Usher impressed the director with his seriousness — “he started doing the Ali shuffle at our first meeting,” Jakubowicz remembers — and immediately started training with amateur boxers, and working with Leonard himself for nearly a year. That training shows through in the film: Usher’s celebrity is effectively tamped down, his stadium-ready dance moves honed into lightning flurries of attack and misdirection. Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman called Usher’s presence “a nifty piece of casting, because the actor, with a touch of prosthetics, doesn’t just look like Leonard, he embodies his exuberant nimble-kill spirit.”
According to Jakubowicz, Leonard was sold on Usher once he decided he “had the right smile,” and the singer’s lack of pugilistic experience ended up being a benefit.
“A lot of the things that might get Usher criticized by his peers were the same things that Sugar Ray Leonard was criticized for,” Jakubowicz says. “Basically, that he was a pretty boy.”
“I do think that this is the beginning of a new journey as an actor,” Usher says. “The things I had done before are a part of it, but this definitely was a major step for me.”
|What: Usher receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. Sept. 7
Where: 6201 Hollywood Blvd.
Usher may not need a reintroduction into the world of music, but he hopes his upcoming album “Hard II Love” — initially slated for a 2015 release — can nonetheless serve as similar pivot point. And perhaps it needs to: It’s been four years since Usher released a full-length, which he acknowledges can seem like an eternity given the rapidly accelerating pace of the music business. But once again, the singer stresses patience.
“[With the album] I have the opportunity to pull from the best of what I’ve created. You know, it’s not like you spend three years just working on 12 songs. You work on 200 or 300 songs. Sometimes they’ll just be sketches, sometimes they’ll be full records. … But this album, I feel, is sort of like a finale to the other seven. And I’ve been thinking about that even when considering the album cover; I looked at all the other albums in order to make this sort of coming-of-age experience. You look at the progressions [from album-to-album], what I chose to talk about, where I was, what my mental state was at each point. Now I just feel relaxed. I feel confident about what I’m saying.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not eager to get the music out into the world. “I create from a place of passion,” he says, laughing as he draws up an odd biological metaphor. “It’s like a pregnancy, where you create from a place of passion, and then it grows, and then before you know it, you want to push that baby out. So after three years, it’s like a full-grown baby, and now I’m like, ‘get this grown person out of me.’”
Pop radio has changed quite a bit since Usher released “Looking 4 Myself” in 2012, but several points on that record seemed to point toward an interesting path forward. Though sales were goosed by the Max Martin-minted Top 10 single “Scream,” the album’s centerpiece, “Climax,” saw Usher embracing an entirely new register. Seemingly equally inspired by the atmospheric, heart-on-a-sleeve emoting of Frank Ocean and the EDM world in which Usher had notched several earlier crossover successes, the song was a radio oddity: Continually rising and falling on a minimal techno beat from Diplo, while Usher pushes his voice deep into his previously unexplored falsetto range.
|King Sugar: Usher spent substantial time with legendary boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard in order to learn his role in “Hands of Stone.”
Courtes of The Weinstein Co.
When asked to name a favorite song from his catalog, Usher singles out “Climax” immediately, and agrees it marked a milestone for him “both musical and vocally, because I’d never used my falsetto in that way. That was a gear that I hadn’t used that much, because it’s so difficult to perform. But it was a newfound idea about who I am. Every time you come out with an album or a song, you want to feel like you’re growing a bit in what you are, and giving people something that they can feel.”
Then again, Usher has been unusually canny about anticipating and adopting new styles and registers throughout his career, as well as finding collaborators with whom to break new ground. The first of these was Bad Boy Records major domo Sean “Puffy” Combs, whom Usher’s LaFace Records boss L.A. Reid had enlisted to serve as the young singer’s executive producer and mentor. Usher’s self-titled 1994 debut produced a few minor hits, with the pubescent Usher singing unusually explicit lyrics. He acknowledges it wasn’t a perfect fit.
“When I was 14 years old, I was talking about much more mature things, because of the writers that I had at the time,” he says. “My first album was tied into what the culture was at that moment, which was Jodeci, Al B. Sure, Puff, The Hitmen. I reaped the benefits of being part of Bad Boy’s movement. That was my introduction. But it didn’t change what I was passionate about. I just wasn’t able to use it yet. It wasn’t until I got together with Jermaine Dupri [on second album, ‘My Way’] that I started telling a story that was a little closer to what my real life was.”
By the time Dupri took control of Usher’s fortunes, those minor hits turned major. “My Way” produced his first No. 1 single, “Nice and Slow,” and the album has since been certified six-times Platinum. Now a major star, Usher’s followup, “8701,” was designed to prove he was more than just a teen idol.
|“Every time you come out with an album or a song, you want to feel like you’re growing a bit in what you are, and giving people something that they can feel.”|
“Kawan Prather was the executive producer [of the album],” Usher says. “He pushed me to be more musical. He said, ‘OK, your last album was cool, and cool is good, but we want people to know that you can sing. We want to hear your vocal ability really bring out the song.’ So that’s how you get ‘U Don’t Have to Call,’ ‘U Got It Bad,’ ‘U Remind Me.’ It was a little bit of a Philly vibe, a little bit of B-More.
“But the idea, no matter who I’m working with, it’s always about collaboration. The mantra I take away from everything is: Don’t be afraid to collaborate. You don’t know everything, and you shouldn’t. The idea of being great is a collaborative effort. It’s never one man being an island, even if that one man chooses not to give other people some credit.”
Appropriately, Usher’s biggest splash saw the singer split credit three ways. “Yeah!,” a collaboration with Ludacris and producer Lil Jon, shot Usher’s sales into the stratosphere. The single was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 straight weeks, and only ceded that position to another Usher single, “Burn.” Both songs were found on the 2004 album “Confessions,” which produced four No. 1 singles, and has sold 20 million copies worldwide.
“My music has always been about fusion,” Usher says. “Even ‘Yeah!’ if you listen to the textures. It became a celebratory record, but it was about creating a fusion so that everybody around the world could enjoy it. That’s what seems to work, whenever I go out to bat with a specific idea or a concept, fusion is always the concept.”
|Peak Performance: “My Boo,” Usher’s duet with Alicia Keys, was the last of the four No. 1 singles drawn from his 2004 album, “Confessions.”
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
It’s certainly an attitude he put into practice when dance music began making inroads into R&B radio. Though some purists might have scoffed, Usher embraced thumping four-on-the-floor beats for a spate of singles, including a collaboration with Swedish House Mafia and a pair of monster 2010 hits: “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” (No. 4) and “OMG” (No. 1).
As for what floats his boat these days, Usher has spent time in Cuba as part of a presidentially appointed arts and humanities delegation after the embargo was lifted, and he describes the country as “musical heaven.” He toyed with recording his entire new album in the country, and says he’s still considering doing so on a future project.
“The more I travel, the more I pick up different ideas, different genres, different textures,” he says. “It makes me more honest. And being a father too makes you more honest, and your perspective changes. You become a little more emotional. The things that you go through and the audiences you speak to, you begin to become more mindful of how far your reach is.
“When you’ve been doing something for 20 years,” he continues, “you can either look at yourself as old, or you can look at yourself as just getting warmed up. I choose to look at it as just getting warmed up.”