As Usher is quick to tell you, he has sold a lot of records—that must be a sign he’s doing something right. Well, sort of. In the decade-plus that he’s been a professional musician, he has indeed sold millions of records and won seven Grammys. He has performed at the Super Bowl and Michael Jackson’s funeral and mentored Justin Bieber. But, as he knows, none of this has anything to do with what makes him such a remarkable artist. In short, Usher is a tremendous singer. That alone is not particularly noteworthy, but what he has chosen to do with his voice is. Take, for example, his 2004 hit “Yeah!,” produced by the then white-hot Lil Jon. The once unbelievably forward-thinking beat now sounds wildly outdated, the synthesizers stilted and Lil Jon’s intermittent grunts long since mocked into meme territory by Dave Chappelle. But Usher sounds timeless, like a smooth and powerful catalyst for the song’s craziness. This trend of impeccable, ahead-of-the-curve taste and unparalleled chops has continued throughout his career—as the sane foil to R. Kelly in “Same Girl,” as one of the first to successfully blend hip-hop, dance and R&B on “Love in This Club,” and as the mastermind behind a string of house music-based hits that predated the current craze by at least a year. His new album, Looking 4 Myself, continues his quest to outrace the zeitgeist, most notably with its first single, “Climax.” Produced by Diplo, it sounds bold and new, a strong push past rave-appropriate house music’s hold on R&B. This time, though, Usher doesn’t shepherd the song kindly; he pushes against it, using his impressively effortless falsetto to begin the song. It’s a monstrous track, and likely to be 2012’s official summer jam, only if it’s not overtaken by one of the many other surefire hits on the album. We spoke with Usher on the last Sunday in April at the quaint Brooklyn restaurant Buttermilk Channel (his choice) about Looking 4 Myself’s diversity, his past and his interest in what’s next.
Where did Looking 4 Myself come from? I was surprised to hear that you’re still looking for yourself at this point in your life. I think we go through these metamorphoses in life and we’re always hitting the reset button. Or sometimes we don’t and we find ourselves recycling life experiences. If you don’t address certain things, it’s reciprocal. You just keep going through it, keep having the same experience over and over and over again. So I went through that in my personal life, where I began to just say, Man, what’s going on with me? What matters? What’s cool? What’s not? What do I like? Can I make music that I just like? Can I just make music that I was inspired to make?
Do you feel like you haven’t been? At times I felt like when you have an audience that spans from five to 50, that’s a high-class problem to have. When you sell a million in a week, you did something right. It’s very hard to go back to where you were when you were 18, right? As a journalist, you’re not gonna go back to where you were at 21. You may have done incredible pieces, and maybe people would say to you, Sure, that was one of your best pieces ever, but okay, that was then, and here is a new vision of how I look at things and how I interpret things. So, Looking 4 Myself is a bit of my own journey, but I think it was a very creative way to talk about a journey through life. What are you looking for? I’m just looking for something that makes me feel good.
Your interest in using beats based in house and electronic music was really ahead of trend. How did you get interested in that music? I think house music came through like—I don’t know if it was Chicago sound or whatever it was, but it’s songs like [Cajmere’s] “Percolator” that really began to introduce me to it. [He begins to sing Haddaway’s “What is Love”] Listening to songs like that as a kid, or Eurythmics, that began to make me understand that there’s just a different style or approach to music. The one cool fucking thing about music is that it’ll take you anywhere. Like, having an experience that takes you around the world sitting in your living room. So I never cut myself down. There weren’t clubs and things like that that I knew of or could even attend as a kid in Chattanooga or Atlanta, but I loved the music, and being in an eclectic environment, you have to at least be open. Again, I didn’t know if I would use it then or if I would be introduced to it now, so that I’d be okay with using it later. Because as things become more and more commercialized, it’s easier to try creative things, but R&B and pop were very specific at a time, I’d say in the ’90s.
It isn’t until now, honestly, that I’m able to explore. Before, I felt like my message was kind of streamlined for a specific audience. High class problem to have. From fucking five to 60—so how do you make records that all of those people will understand, like and enjoy and want to buy, right?
Can you answer your own question? How do you make those records? You gotta love it. They have to feel the passion and believe in the music, because you can sing over anything. If you don’t believe it, I’m not gonna enjoy it. I’m not gonna believe that you’re really in this experience, you know? High-class problem.
But how do you do it without watering down the music you make? You find people who are as passionate as you, first and foremost, who have the ability and understanding of expansion who want to be creative. I think that the really cool thing about Diplo is he never leaves anybody out of the party. So if you hear something, urban ears won’t fall deaf but electronic ears won’t fall deaf either. Everybody feels like they got something out of it.
Do you think “Climax” is a song that can appeal to everyone? I think that it is a song that the majority of my audience will like. But for my core, if I didn’t catch them with this new sound, at least I caught them with a vocal that felt reminiscent of something I’d done before. Then, singing in falsetto, that was classic. So my older demographic, they remember that. There was something about The Spinners or something about The Temptations that that older audience loved. They love when—I don’t know what
it is, but as a kid doing talent shows, any performer that had the ability to go to his falsetto won the show. It’s crazy.
Was your falsetto something you had to cultivate? I didn’t have to go to my falsetto as a child. I could actually sing that high. So as I got older and went through puberty and started to have a vocal change, I had to find other ways to get up there. That’s how I did it.
Is it effortless now? Now it is, yeah. It was cool, when Diplo first played the beat—he played “Climax” before it was “Climax,” and a girl had written a song over it. Ariel [Rechtshaid, a “Climax” co-writer] and him had me in a corner, they were like, Yo, this is a bit different but I think you’re gonna like it. I think that this is one that you could really dig. So they started playing it, and I said, I don’t like this song, no offense, but I do love the record. I said, Why don’t you let me put some melodies down and find my way? And I instantly went to falsetto and Diplo looked at me like, Wow, that’s dope. For the first time, I recognized that I had a gear that I wasn’t utilizing. I’ve used it in the past but I’d never use my falsetto—as the first single? Never. That was like my homage to Prince. Every album I’d always do like one song that is very Prince-influenced, because he’s a great influence on me musically, especially just kind of being expansive and creating music that represents many different genres. You never could put his music in a specific box. He was just “it,” you know what I mean? So taking that risk, taking that shot, I thought was daring, but I really wanted to put out—I wanted to give my fans a record that they would not expect. I fucking hate that we didn’t have a camera rolling when we created it, because it was so cool how it happened. Redd Stylez [another “Climax” co-writer], myself and Ariel, we just kept talking about it and I kept throwing the melodies. And then we started jotting the lyrics. Second verse I didn’t even give anybody no time to say anything. I said, I got it, I got it. Instantly. It was a little bit of Coldplay that I pulled from.
How do you translate Coldplay into “Climax?” I never would have heard that. I told you, you never know when it’s gonna be useful. That’s naturally where I went. I don’t know how it worked, but in my vast library of stored musical references, I kind of flipped through and found that one like, Yeah, this would be perfect there.
It worked. It worked. Then [my song] “Scream,” for me, you know, a totally different experience. Selfishly, I’m that artist who never likes to go anywhere and not be able to hear a record that represents me. So I would go to dance clubs in the past and I didn’t necessarily have records that worked there. When I began to start doing dance records with Max Martin and with Will.I.Am, I began to work in that world. Even with RedOne, with “More,” working on that—you go to Ibiza, you go to Greece, you go to Germany—especially Germany—and you sit in that club and they’re not playing your shit, you’re like, Man, I gotta get in here.
So just going to dance clubs socially and not hearing your music was the impetus for working with those producers? Oddly, my metaphor is a treadmill. My treadmill sped up, so I wanted to keep the pace. So the emotion doesn’t change because I continue to sing the way that I sing, but the treadmill sped up a little bit. I just had to find a way to work in a new space, but I never abandoned all of the other things that I like. Classic R&B, it’s there.
I think it was like maybe three years ago on Nikki Beach in St. Tropez, all of those moments kind of clicked, like, Okay, this is the type of vibe I wanna make. We docked our boat, I was with a friend who had a boat, and just had lunch, right? But during that time, we got all these people like spraying champagne and shit, which, you know, that’s cool shit that you see in the hood, right? But they’re doing it out here on the beach, but they’re doing it to electronic music. I was like, this is crazy. While that’s opulent, and not really what I want to represent, I really wanted to represent the “fuck it” of it, the fun of it, the having a great time.
Was it hard to get your label or anyone on your team onboard with the sound? It was not popular on American airwaves at that point. It was organic in the way it happened. I don’t think anybody suspected it. Once again, high-class problems—I have an audience that is kind of reluctant to accept something new from me because they know what they like. They know what they bought me for. And if you sold a million in a week, then you did something right. If you sold over 13 to 18 million albums, you’ve done something right. So, you know, here you’re stuck or you’re challenged with, man, do I just give them what I know they want or do I try to, once again, change the story and give a grand opening. This is an ever-rolling treadmill that speeds up and the story changes. As you go different places, you’re influenced by different things, you begin to become more conscious of what’s going on around you.
Still, next to all this electronic music, Looking 4 Myself has a very organic sounding track produced by Salaam Remi. How do these things work together in your head? How did this make one unified record? You know what it is? I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything out. Some emotional, some artistic, some expansive, some tech, some about just having a good time, just fun, a bit of nostalgia, all of that. I think it’s my humble beginning, the fact that I was surrounded by people who were creative enough to break the trend, then create the trend. It was Jermaine Dupri, it was L.A. Reid that really set a stage for me to feel comfortable creatively myself because I didn’t recognize that I had enough references to pull from. I just didn’t know yet. So it wasn’t until these last three albums that I began to tell the story the way I really wanted to as a writer and as a producer.
Where do you go to hear new music? Who do you talk to? You should just thank Shazam because everywhere I go, I put it up.
Can I see your Shazam? [At this point Usher pulls out his iPhone and opens up the Shazam app, but instead of showing me the list of songs, he tries to capture the end of the song playing in the restaurant and then puts his phone down.] For real, it’s the new crate. You know how we used to dig through the crates and walk the aisles? Back in the day, right, it was really walking through the aisles, man. Just finding inspiration and the only way you would catch—because you couldn’t pop them open back then.
How do you have time to remain so curious? Because music is that way. It only takes three minutes to make a difference in a lifetime. Three minutes can change a life.
The diversity of your interest in music is— I’m a scholar at this shit, man. You know what it is? I just love it. I really just love music, man. I don’t do it for the business of it, I really just…I love music.
How is your professional relationship with music different now that, as you’re saying, you feel like you get to do whatever you want? What I mean is that an audience is now more receptive to new concepts and ideas. In the past, I think that there was a kind of standard format box created for most styles of music. If you’re R&B, you’re this. If you’re hip-hop, you’re this. If you’re indie, you’re this. If you’re rock, you’re this. And they would not blur the lines, until now. You can put it all together. You can create melting pot experiences through music. Hybrids.
One of my favorite songs of yours, and I feel bad bringing it up it because it was a leak, is “Dat Girl Right There.” Do you remember that song? Rich Harrison [the song’s producer].
He was having such a huge moment when that song was done, just like Lil Jon when you did “Yeah!” Once again, people are not as receptive to a sound because it was crazy to them, it was loud. It sounds new. People are always afraid of what they—it’s like, you’re gonna eventually love what you’re afraid to love. You’ll fall in love with what you fear at some point.
A song that crazy sounding, if you had made it now, do you think it would have come out now? Yeah, I do.
Do you regret that? I regret that somebody leaked it, that’s what I regret.
How does hip-hop play into the music that you make? I feel like if anything, hip-hop is moving closer to your direction than the other way around. When you have producers like 40, producers like Diplo, they understand the history and you always hear a little bit of a homage of the early ’90s in their music. That was kind of like a high point for me as an artist, but also in terms of what was influencing all of us, be it Wu-Tang, be it Bad Boy in the era of Bad Boy, or Death Row, Souls of Mischief or whatever it may be, or Sade, or any of those influences and those people that were very large at that time. All those mixtures work, because here you have the babies of that era that are now creating, and they’re creating based off what they feel.
Why do you have less hip-hop collaborations than a lot of R&B singers? Well, I don’t think as many songs call for it, you know? Whereas now, Drake has made it—well I mean, go back, I made it okay to rap over ballads. So I guess even the creation of artists like Drake, having been an inspiration for those artists, I guess that was my style at one point. And as I begin to create other things and go in other directions, it still was great inspiration for them. So when you hear music like Drake or music that 40 and them create, I feel great about it. I love it and I wanted to participate in it, but I didn’t think that I needed as many features because the music doesn’t call for it. Rick Ross was one on “Lemme See.” I felt like that would complement the record and make it better, and
it was a surprise, you know?
What do you think about the general state of R&B, with the recent success of The Weeknd and The-Dream? Do you feel like they owe you something? I’m pretty sure that I helped to drive the inspiration behind certain things. But I don’t take ownership in it. I’m cool with everybody.
Do you like it? I like it. I think taking ownership is just enjoying it, you know what I’m saying? I think it was cool, the first time Drake performed in Atlanta, he actually performed in the place I got discovered. He throws on—I think it was “Dot Com” or “Seduction.” And I kind of walked out on stage and gave him a pound and the crowd went crazy. They didn’t know I was there. But just like out of respect for me, he’s like, Yo, this is the type of shit I used to listen to when I was coming up, you know, and I used to—this is my jam, this is my shit. And he threw the record on. An impromptu moment, I just walked up and just gave him a pound, cause I thought, you know, respect. You got ATL love. I consider myself an ambassador of the A.
How much do you think that Atlanta’s music scene has influenced you? I’m surprised that you’ve never done anything with anybody from Outkast or Organized Noize. I tried. Not many people know this, that that was the first crew I ran with. Me and Big Boi—it’s some shit I really fucking regret, man. Yeah, Big Boi had reached out to L.A. [Reid] and Kawan Prather [then both at LaFace Records] about getting me on “I Like the Way You Move,” and at the time—I don’t know—I just made a bad decision not to get on the record. Sleepy [Brown] ended up doing the record, but every time I hear it I always say, Damn, that’s a boat missed. He sold me a dog, though.
Who did? Big Boi.
Big Boi sold you a dog? Yeah. I got one of his pits.