Sure, the celebrity gossip still lingers: The years between records found him defending his marriage in public and dealing with an upheaval in his inner circle.
But with the May 27 release of his fifth studio CD, "Here I Stand" — debuting atop the pop charts next week — the first thing people are asking him about these days is his new album.
And what Usher and the industry powers involved with "Here I Stand" have to say about it may be some of the most frank, revealing and not altogether flattering talk from and about the Atlanta superstar in his decade-plus in the business. His last CD, "Confessions," sold more than 1 million copies in its first seven days in stores — a record first week for any male R&B artist. It went on to sell more than 9 million copies, making it the best-selling album in 2004.
"I've made history," the 29-year-old says from his hotel room in New York. "Now I want to help save R&B."
"Here I Stand" moved 433,000 units its first week out. It's the second-highest debut on the Billboard charts this year. But in comparison to his last CD, is it a promising sign for an artist out to salvage a genre?
"I don't think the first week will be the biggest week he'll have numberswise," says Mark Pitts of Zomba Label Group.
"It's just gonna take a minute for people to really connect. Once they get past all of the energy of everything else around Usher, they'll be able to appreciate 'Here I Stand' for what it is. And who Usher is now."
That's exactly what the five-time Grammy winner is hoping.
"In time, I think people will understand where I am personally," Usher says. "And, I know — here we go again — my personal life is my personal space. And it's good, people! We are in love!
"But back to this album, I'm trying to make sure people get the message that this is real R&B. Real music. Real instruments. Real vocal arrangements. I'm serious about preserving and appreciating R&B."
"Here I Stand," he says, "is a classic piece of work. There's incredible production from Jermaine Dupri, Tricky and Dream, Polow Da Don, Bryan-Michael Cox, Johnta Austin — all of the best talents in Atlanta. I was very cognizant of wanting to add to the wealth of Atlanta's music scene."
"A No. 1 hit record ['Love In This Club,' featuring Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy]; [new single] 'Moving Mountains' is a hot video at [MTV's] 'TRL' — yeah, I'm happy about the momentum," Usher continues.
But some of the Atlantans involved with the CD have other things to say about it.
"I think we ran into a bit of a buzz saw with this," says Christopher Hicks, Usher's co-manager. "He's competing with himself at this point. I don't think anyone can honestly say they listen to 'Here I Stand' with the same level of objectivity that they listened to 'Confessions.'"
Dupri recently told Hot-107.9 listeners he was upset that "a bunch of my songs" didn't make the CD, adding: "[Usher's] not saying a lot of things people want him to say on this album."
Da Don goes even further, first to admit that "I probably messed the timing up for everybody by leaking [his production] 'Love in This Club.' After that, I mean, they had to rush the project."
Then he adds: "From an Usher fan prospective — which I am — no, I don't think this is his best album. His vocals are way better than they've ever been, undoubtedly; but I am more of a ghetto dude. Not R&B. And the thing about Usher, and I would say, R. Kelly, is that even if you were a guy who listened to rap music all the time, you could still ride to Usher — until this one."
Usher concedes he's heard this kind of talk, too. "I read. I listen to the radio, look at the blogs."
Outside of personal swipes, what really riles him?
Being called a "rap singer."
"Not that I don't like rap or hip-hop," he explains from New York, where he's basically scheduled to be until Father's Day. (He and wife Tameka had their first child, Usher Raymond V, last November. Usher calls him Cinco. Note the tag on the car on the "Here I Stand" cover.)
"And I really appreciate how the pioneers in hip-hop such as Jermaine Dupri or a Sean 'Puffy' Combs have shown us how to market music as a lifestyle.
"But give R&B its due. When you sell lots of records, you know, they want to make you a pop artist. Which is great because that's another way of saying you're popular or successful and making a lot of money. At the same time, you're [chipping away] at the essence of R&B, the things that Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles fought for me and my peers to have. Chuck Berry and Nat King Cole didn't do it the way they did it only for me to come around and be happy that people call me a 'rap singer.' And I'm left with the responsibility to stand up for that. For them."
That is, in part, why "Here I Stand" has only a few rappers (Young Jeezy, Jay-Z, Will.I.Am and Lil Wayne) featured on the 18 songs.
"Usher really, really showcases who he has become as a singer," notes Austin.
That may also explain why you haven't seen Usher ripping off his shirt on his recent "Good Morning America," "Dancing With The Stars" and "106 & Park" appearances. (Which was almost a given during his "Confessions" and "8701" days.)
"But there ain't a daddy gut under there or something," Usher insists with a laugh. "I'm conditioned and ready for all of this. ... The abs are still there."
His focus may be on saving R&B, but the 14-year music veteran still knows where the media's lens gravitates.
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