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Usher - The House Of Usher

Author: Sasha Perera
Monday, 19 May 2008
Pulling up a pew with Usher, 3D’s Sasha Perera discovers that the RNB heavyweight’s new album is the sound of the artist growing up.

Following on from selling 14 million copies of his last album Confessions, RNB superstar Usher returns to the spotlight this month with the release of his fifth studio album Here I Stand. Since debuting in 1994 with his first album, Usher has gone on to become one of the world’s biggest stars. A consummate performer, this gifted soul singer stands out from the pack of young imitators attempting to hijack his style.

With his new album Usher further breaks away from such generic RNB artists; a move forward from youthful hip hop-swagger into proud RNB territory with instant soul classics like the title track Here I Stand, the guitar-laced Something Special, dancefloor jammer This Ain’t Sex and the anthemic Moving Mountains. Thematically the album is all about the responsibilities of adulthood; something with which Usher is now intimately familiar, having got married, had a child, and lost his father within the span of less than six months.

Sitting opposite me in a swanky Beverly Hills hotel, Usher has an air of cool confidence about him. He’s more Diddy than Jay-Z; rockin’ an expensive GQ-esque style that instantly makes me feel like a homeless tramp. Nevertheless the singer is chatty and forthcoming about the direction of the new album, and sparks lively when I tell him – in all truth – that his new album reminds me in many ways of classic Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Quincy Jones’ production and some of Michael Jackson’s finer moments.

“I thought of Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and I thought of Al Green on this project with records like Something Special,” he says in response. “A lot of times I just wanted to break away from using a lot of synthesized music. I actually challenged a lot of producers to give me records that were more live sounding, or that could be easily reinterpreted in a live production with a band. It actually made it kinda hard for the producer who didn’t know how to play instruments, so those collaborations actually fell out of the final album. There was a space for a more synthesized sound with records like Love In This Club, which play for a specific place – that is, I think it really works in a club – but as a whole I wanted the album to sound more musically live. I mean, you gotta be able to exist in the club, you gotta be able to exist on the radio, and you gotta give them some substance at the same time for the tour.”

Working with some of the hottest writers and producers in the business such as Will.I.Am, Jermaine Dupri, Stargate, Dre & Vidal and Stargate, Usher has delivered an album that incorporates some of the best RNB thinkers in the business. Which prompted me to ask how he makes sure that, in working with so many artists, they’re giving him the best of what they’ve got. “If they were smart they would,” he laughs. And he has a point  - when you sell 14 million copies of your last album, everybody wants to be a part of your next project.

“Every album that I’ve made, I’ve always challenged the producers; everybody’s [the producers] battling for the single but challenging you to do something that you didn’t necessarily think,” he explains.  “I need them to come into my world, and so when they do that, it becomes an exchange. I’ll challenge them there – when I’m there with them I want to hear what they’re working on, but then I might wanna change this lyric, or we need to discuss how we can take it a little bit deeper. What’s also important is the connection between me and the writers of this album – Johnta Austin wrote on this record, Dream, Raheem DeVaughn and Ryan Lovett, and I wrote a lot on the records too. I challenged them – if they did not go through the situation, I had to sit there and go through the process of conversation to find it.”

Despite the heavy hitters on the album, Here I Stand is impressive because unlike all of the other urban albums out there, the producers haven’t over-stamped their sound on the songs. Producers like Will.I.Am and Jermaine Dupri have done some of their best work from the sidelines, managing to avoid pandering to their own egos. On one of the album’s highlights Something Special – which Usher has talked about wanting to record again in the future with John Mayer on guitar – the production of Dupri is thankfully and refreshingly untraceable in its sound design.

“I challenged all the producers to go outside of the norm,” the singer says of his collaborative efforts. “I had a very focused view of what I wanted to say, although I was very conscious of the fact that my fans were waiting and looking for something – they want me to dance, to perform, and to have a good time with the record, so I got to do that, but at the same time I want to be able to tell a story and take listeners on a journey.”

“People buy into an entire process, not just a record,” Usher continues. “They may enjoy a record but when they buy into your journey it helps them in their life, it sometimes helps them to articulate themselves, and to understand certain feelings. I think that people live vicariously through our stories at times, and so it was important that these stories were real. They will either become real to you or you will grow as a result of listening to them, but obviously you’re dealing with an older and more mature Usher than you were before.”

WHO: Usher
WHAT: Here I Stand out on 24 May through Sony BMG