This week the singularly named Usher – no mere R&B superstar or TV talent show judge, but surely the Renaissance Man Nonpareil – was announced as the headliner of November’s RNB Friday Live series of concerts across Australia. We shall be lucky to have him in our midst. Don’t take my word for it. No, really, there’s no need to take my word for it because the man will tell you himself. As he did in this illuminating conversation in the bowels of London’s O2 Arena in 2011.
Wind Back Wednesday waits for the crumbs of wisdom and insight. Though not for as long as I waited seven years ago.
MICHAEL JORDAN, MICHAEL JACKSON, MADONNA … AND ME
Usher doesn't do modesty. (Or punctuality for that matter, arriving three hours late for the interview, because, well, he can.)
Maybe when you've sold some 60 million albums, including nine number one singles, picked up five Grammys and dozens more other awards, currently selling out four Acer Arena shows and five equally large shows in Melbourne and been named one of the 50 sexiest men alive you figure any modesty on your part, by its very nature, would be false.
After all, as the man born Usher Raymond IV (father of the infant Usher Raymond V incidentally), is very quick to tell you, along with being a very fine dancer and singer he's also "a business man, a philanthropist, a mentor, an executive, I’m a writer, a producer, I’m an artiste, all these different things. In my spare time." Not to mention an actor with a string of film and TV roles behind him.
Naturally he does them well. “You look at careers like Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, who have attempted to go outside of music, Madonna, artists who have established as a musician but want to do something else. They want to have a more intimate relationship with entertainment so they do things like go to Broadway. I’ve done that, I’m really an all ‘round performer," he says matter-of-factly.
Meanwhile in his day job as "a song and dance man" he sees himself in equally rarefied company even before his recent substantial hit OMG from last year’s Raymond V Raymond album.
"There was Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Michael Jackson and then Usher," he says in his soft voice and quite gentlemanly manner, rubbing a hairy jawed face showing the signs of tiredness. Not the tiredness of a man about to do the fifth of his six concerts at London's last O2 Arena, as you might think, but that of someone whose self regard is matched by painstaking attention to detail which sees him watching back tapes of every show, late into the evening, during the highly mechanised, choreographed and slickly delivered show, with its echoes of Michael and Janet Jackson, he is presenting on this tour.
“It’s kinda mandatory that I go through the tapes. Just to make sure," says Usher. "I’m an extremely efficient guy and really strive for excellence. People have paid their hard earned money for the show and I want to make sure I’m giving them a show that’s as close to perfection as I can.”
Not that he worries necessarily about things going wrong as “living in the moment, that’s what it’s all about” and he’s got the confidence and technique to carry him. Technique built up by the 32-year-old over 20 years of performance, from a local vocal group in Atlanta (where his family had moved from Texas because it was viewed as more supportive of rising musical talent) to the American Star Search television program and being signed as a teenager by the R&B giant, writer/producer/label head LA Reid, the first of many significant names he would attach himself to including writer/producers Jermaine Dupri and Puff Daddy.
Does he feel like an elder statesmen of the scene now, with his experience and his role as a mentor to others such as Justin Beiber, the Canadian tween-pop singer who was discovered by Usher?
“I can’t say I feel like an elder at all,” he says with a weary smile. “But I will say that I feel like a young pioneer. One who has established himself as a specific thing, performing in a specific way being a song and dance man, giving you a show that you will never forget.
“I think it’s fair for you to say that even though you are a pioneer you should be a mentor to those coming up. Michael Jordan, while he was doing it he was the greatest still so look at Michael, while mentoring other people he was still was the greatest, finding his way to creativity. You have to go through training and really be an incredible student, which is what I tell my students, the people I mentor. You’re as good as the shoulders you stand on."
The shoulders he is standing are not, he insists, merely the obvious ones in R&B: Usher Raymond is not a one channel operator you know. He is developing a hybrid genre he calls "relevant music, or rev”, which will be his lasting legacy to music.
“You asked me why I didn’t just choose to go with standard pop, well part of the makeup of who I am as an artist has to do with finding my way through different genres of music. one that represents soul, rock, all these things combined and that is what my new mission is, define a new genre for music. I’m doing it. OMG is it. Which is something that I think all artists go through, those who have sustaining power. You look at Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie, artists who said there are no limits on what you can do.”
That’s an impressive list he’s added himself too. Is there one thing he’s not good at?
“Yeah, shit yeah, there’s a tonne I’m not good at,” Usher exclaims. “I’m not the best cook in the world but I can cook.”
Ah, modesty. Sort of.
RNB Fridays Live 2018
Perth: Friday, November 9, nib Stadium
Melbourne: Saturday, November 10, Etihad Stadium
Adelaide: Sunday, November 11, Adelaide Showgrounds
Brisbane: Friday, November 16, Brisbane Showgrounds
Sydney: Saturday, November 17, Spotless Stadium