Usher felt a bit of his life, and certainly his career, flash before his eyes at this year’s American Music Awards.
There he was, sitting in Los Angeles next to L.A. Reid, who signed him to LaFace Records as “the baby of LaFace” when Usher Raymond IV was just 13. Then there he was at the podium, accepting a pair of trophies for Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist and Favorite Soul/R&B Album for this year’s “Raymond v. Raymond.”
And there he was again, called to the stage by Justin Bieber, the 16-year-old pop phenomenon and the night’s big winner, who paid props to Usher for signing him to his RBMG company and mentoring him to platinum sales.
“We were there sitting in our seats,” recalls the Dallas-born, Tennessee-raised Usher, 32, who joined LaFace after competing on TV’s “Star Search.” “And (Reid) was like, ‘Wow, just think about all the artists who we started with LaFace, and the baby is still doing his thing ... So I’m really happy to continue to do what I do and make people happy ... not only to receive awards myself but also to see my young brother, my student, win and excel.”
Usher has certainly set a high mark for Bieber and any of the other younger artists he’s working with. Since his self-titled 1994 debut, he’s sold more than 45 million albums worldwide and notched 16 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. His awards tally includes five Grammys, six AMAs and seven Soul Train Music Awards. In 1998 People magazine dubbed him the sexiest living R&B artist, this year Glamour magazine named him one of the 50 sexiest men alive, and he’s also taken TV and film turns in “She’s All That,” “Light It Up,” “Killers,” “Moesha” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Usher is celebrating all of this on the road with his worldwide OMG Tour, an outing that caps a particularly busy year with two releases — the chart-topping and platinum “Raymond v. Raymond” and the follow-up “Versus” EP — and another passel of hits, including the No. 1 “OMG” with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am, “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” with Pitbull and “Hot Tottie” with Jay-Z.
“As a young artist,” Usher explains, “I always said I wanted to show versatility. Now, as I look back over my full catalog of music, I feel like I’m at a point where everybody in the family can come to an Usher show.” Then he stops and laughs; “I’m speaking in the third person. Sorry, my bad.”
“But,” he continues, “I feel like everybody can come to this show and enjoy something. Some songs are a lot more intimate R&B. Some songs are very much pop and New Age. Some songs are very specific for the club ... Everybody gets a part. For younger audiences, they get to hear my classic music, for older audiences (they) get to hear and feel something they might not necessarily go for.
“My point is to artistically take people on a journey they might not experience otherwise.”
And, Usher adds, if it all works those fans should be uttering the tour’s title — several times, he hopes.
“I give it all,” he says. “I leave it all on the stage. I give you the energy. I tear myself apart emotionally, energetically, connecting with you and making sure you enjoy this moment and leave saying ‘OMG — Oh My God!’ ”
The OMG Tour show is, not surprisingly, a song-and-dance extravaganza, heavy on the latter and laden with plenty of visual effects. Some of that comes from Usher’s own ambitions, of course, but he acknowledges an even higher-minded mission this time out.
“We lost Michael Jackson, (so) I feel a lot of pressure on me,” Usher says. “I don’t mind taking it. It’s all about the giants before me, the great entertainers who paved the way. We pay tribute in the way we sing ... and the way we dance. I do it through the entertainment, man. That’s how I pay tribute. That’s my seasoning. That’s how it is.
“So, yeah, the over-arching impression that I’d like to leave is that, ‘Y’know, this guy’s really stepping it up to a level where it’s fair to compare him to people like Michael Jackson and great entertainers of the past.’”
That’s big talk, of course, but Usher — whose divorce from Tameka Foster, the mother of his two children, fueled “Raymond v. Raymond” — hopes to back it up simply by producing more music and playing more shows. He plans “on coming right back” into the studio after the OMG Tour takes him through North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand through late March, and he expects those adventures will impact whatever he does next.
“As I travel the world, I absorb what I hear and what I feel,” he explains. “The one thing that is inevitable is change, and if you don’t change and adapt, then you die.
“As an entertainer, part of it is interpretation and your perspective; the other side is understanding what’s next, and I plan on keeping my ear to the street, or at least to the world, but pounding the concrete in introducing new styles. I just hope that the world can keep up.”
Usher is more than just a multi-million selling artist and one of the world’s top pop stars these days. He’s also the man who helped launch Bieber Mania.
The singer, currently in the midst of his OMG Tour, signed Justin Bieber to his Raymond Braun Media Group, brokered a recording contract and has watched like a proud parent, or at least older sibling, as the 16-year-old Canadian scored a pair of chart-topping releases and five Top 20 singles, as well as four trophies at this year’s American Music Awards.
“I’m very proud of the success we’ve had with him,” Usher says. “When I saw (Bieber), he was the type of artist I wanted to be associated with, someone that I felt would be able to really absorb whatever I have to offer.
“I always told him, ‘You could be as big as you want to be, depending on your dedication. How bad do you want this?’ And he said, ‘I really want it,’ then I said ‘OK, then you’ll make it. You’ll have it all.’ ”
Usher was particularly moved at the AMAs when Bieber, after being named Artist of the Year, called his mentor to the stage to accept the trophy with him.
“It was an out-of-body experience, you understand?” recalls Usher, who was introduced to Bieber by the latter’s Atlanta-based manager Scooter Braun. “I was emotional. I don’t cry that often, but I did, and I enjoyed it. It was amazing, and this year, you know, stands to hopefully be an indication of how hard we worked to build a career that hopefully will continue to flourish and blossom throughout the years.”
And, Usher promises, even with Bieber’s strong launch he’ll remain “looped in” on everything the young star does in the future.
“We have a very close-knit team,” he says. “We speak on almost a daily basis to stay locked in and loaded on the creative direction and all the decisions that are made on (Bieber’s) behalf. That’s mandatory.”
Usher, Trey Songz and Miguel perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $29.50-$99.50. Call 313-471-6606 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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