Usher comes home ‘to the A’

Favorite son seeks to reclaim R&B throne with new album and tour, including 6 shows in Atlanta.
With a hot new album, Usher is back at the top of Atlanta's music scene, but did the R&B superstar ever really go away? The AJC sits down with Atlanta's favorite son to talk about his new music, the new tour and what’s next on his bucket list following his electrifying Super Bowl halftime show in February. Photo by Tyson A. Horne/

Credit: Tyson Horne

Credit: Tyson Horne

With a hot new album, Usher is back at the top of Atlanta's music scene, but did the R&B superstar ever really go away? The AJC sits down with Atlanta's favorite son to talk about his new music, the new tour and what’s next on his bucket list following his electrifying Super Bowl halftime show in February. Photo by Tyson A. Horne/

The final moments of Usher’s record-breaking Super Bowl LVIII halftime performance were the most radiant.

Inside Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium, Usher had the bounce of a quarterback who just scored a game-winning touchdown. His last outfit of the night was a custom bedazzled, Off-white blue-and-black suit that outlined his abs. His stare teemed with pride. Anchored by Atlanta artists Ludacris on his right and Lil Jon on his left, he’d just performed a buoyant set singing, skating and dancing across several outfit and set design changes. Somehow, his voice was still powerful enough at the finale to honor the town that raised him.

“I turned the world to the A,” he chanted four times to 123 million viewers, the most in Super Bowl history.

It was a fitting end to his roughly three-year run in Las Vegas.

Three days later, after marrying longtime girlfriend and music executive Jennifer Goicoechea, Usher returned to the city that made him. With open arms, the city welcomed him home in a grandiose celebration. The Atlanta artist was awarded the city’s highest honor, the Phoenix Award. Afterwards, he headed to Clark Atlanta University for an ultimate homecoming celebration and ended the night with an album release party.

He’s not dwelling on his laurels for long, though. This spring, Usher returns to Las Vegas to headline his annual Lovers & Friends festival. And in the summer, he’ll embark on a world tour to support his new album “Coming Home.”

Usher’s impeccable work ethic cannot be understated. Even at 45, he has a loaded schedule that’s confounding to those 20 years younger. It’s that rigor that has made Usher a dominant leader in R&B for the past 30 years.

“I could benefit from more rest, but I don’t need a lot,” he told me during his Atlanta homecoming. “Some people can thrive off of four to five hours of sleep. Some people need nine to 12. I think I work better with a few hours. I don’t think you really want to see me if I slept nine hours every day. I’d drive everybody crazy.”

Viva Las Vegas

“Spotlights. Big stage.”

Getting ready for an Usher concert feels like you’re going on the date of lifetime, regardless of your relationship status. Nails done. Check. Hair done. Check. Outfit picked well in advance. Check.

But if you just so happen to be single, this is especially true.

That’s because he speaks our love language. And he makes the love palpable, even for love’s best skeptics. Even if only for one night.

“Let me take you to a place nice and quiet / There ain’t no one there to interrupt, ain’t gotta rush,” he assures a lover on the 1997 hit “Nice & Slow.” Or take his complete idolization of a partner on “Superstar”: “I’m a kid again, I feel like 13 / But I knew since we fell in love, girl, I’d be / I’ll be your groupie, baby / ‘Cause you are my superstar.”

Usher sings at The Dolby Live at Park MGM in December during the final performance of the R&B star’s Las Vegas residency, in which he completed 100 shows. Photo by Nolen Ryan for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nolen Ryan Photography

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Credit: Nolen Ryan Photography

That was the magic of Usher’s Las Vegas residency, an Atlanta-inspired fantasia of three decades of songs that consider and prioritize a woman’s desires throughout the pleasure, pain and passion of falling in and out of love. So magical that this single gal went twice. The second time was on Dec. 2, 2023, the final day of his 18-month run at Dolby Live. (His first leg in Vegas started at Caesars Palace in 2021.) It was his 100th sold-out show in Las Vegas to date.

On this night, Usher seemed particularly calm. As if he’d prepared for the moment his entire life. He sweated profusely, but he performed each song with the tenacity of an elite showman who’s never tired. In the audience was Mary J. Blige, HER (whom he serenaded during the night) and Donald Glover, among the thousands who came to see, for one last time, the residency that powered Usher’s next chapter.

”When I first moved to Vegas, I didn’t care about making money, but I wanted people to enjoy themselves,” he told me months later. “I wanted us to get back to normal. I wanted us to get to a place where we can actually be in a room with each other and have a good time. That was my only goal.”

The two residencies earned over $100 million combined, according to Billboard. Since the end of his residency, a collection of veteran R&B and hip-hop acts have announced their own stops in Las Vegas: Wu-Tang Clan, Jodeci, New Edition and more.

Kingdom come

I met Usher in Atlanta on the supreme day of love, Valentine’s Day. It was the middle of his ultra busy Atlanta homecoming, and he looked a bit tired. Yet, he approached me with a smile and his signature dimples. He wore a black Tom Ford suit and black leather gloves. He entered the room sans an entourage — only him and his publicist. The latter offered him water, but I don’t remember him taking a sip throughout the duration of our hour-long conversation.

Usher was laser-focused. His eyes never wandered in conversation. He wanted me to understand exactly what he’s saying.

He spoke with the air of a teacher whose intent was to make me think.

It was fitting, then, that our conversation took place at Art Melanated’s Stevie Wonder exhibit at the Thompson Atlanta-Buckhead. Even unintentionally, Usher is always teaching.

“I don’t create based off of new or old standards, I create based off of my standard,” he told me. “Whenever I do anything, I put my all into it. Every bit of who and what I am is represented in it, whether it’s dance, a product, developing an artist, a play, a book. My DNA is to create quality.”

Usher holds up the Phoenix Award presented by Mayor Andre Dickens at The Black Music Walk of Fame in Atlanta on Feb. 14. Photo by Natrice Miller/


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Born Usher Raymond IV in Dallas, Texas, the doyen of Atlanta’s rhythm and blues was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before moving to the city with his mom and brother at age 12. He later signed to LaFace Records, which released his eponymous debut album in 1994, when he was 15.

Over the next 30 years, Usher cemented himself as one of the greatest entertainers in pop music. The eight-time Grammy winner is the male R&B superstar of our time. His 2004 album “Confessions” is among the best-selling R&B LPs of all-time.

Usher is well-aware of the history he’s made and continues to make (after all, he helped develop Justin Bieber). More importantly, he’s equally aware of the history that musical giants set before him. He’s one of last living legends who can say they’ve performed with and/or performed tributes for Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, Prince and James Brown. Usher’s Super Bowl performance honored kings of R&B’s past: Bobby Brown, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Sammy Davis Jr. and more.

For 30 years, Usher has cemented himself as one of the greatest entertainers in pop music. The eight-time Grammy winner is widely considered the quintessential R&B superstar of our time. Photo by Tyson A. Horne/

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Credit: Tyson Horne

“I wanted to take us back to times previous,” said Usher, speaking about his Super Bowl performance. “When I think about in Las Vegas at the Moulin Rouge where Black performers could not perform in regular casinos — I thought about that, so I added a little bit of those things and how [my background dancers] were dressed was to speak to that.”

Usher began his performance by saying, “They said I wouldn’t make it. They said I wouldn’t be here today. We made it Mama.” It was a reference to the 1984 gospel classic “I’m Still Holding On” by Luther Barnes and the Red Budd Gospel Choir, one of the first songs Usher’s mom, Jonnetta Patton, taught him when she directed the church youth choir in Chattanooga.

Watching her son incorporate that song into the performance reminded Patton of how far they have come. Patton was Usher’s first manager, and she remembers telling record labels that he’d be the next Michael Jackson.

“I can remember them calling me a momager,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘No, I am a manager’”

Even if it took others time to get on board, her belief in herself as a manager and in her son as a superstar never waned. In fact, Usher performing in Las Vegas was a part of her 25-year plan for her son’s career.

“It really touched me,” Patton said about the tribute. “I was so happy just watching him be the true professional that he is. I didn’t cry. I was just happy because I really thought about a lot of things that he actually went through and that I went through in the beginning. I’m the mom, and the record company didn’t believe in me. They felt like I could not do the job. I just thought about those things. But it was just beautiful.”

Throughout his 15-minute set, Usher danced on grass, skated across the stage and took his shirt off like it was 2004 all over again. Featured performances included Alicia Keys, HER,, Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris and Lil Jon. It was a Black cultural dynamo that was so deeply Atlanta — from the city’s skating culture to the HBCU band to the performers doing the A-Town stomp.

“I was just really enthralled in the moment,” he said. “I think I’ve always been focused on building a kingdom. ... I’m not going to say I wasn’t inspired by Marvin Gaye or Gene Kelly or any of those people, which is why I do all of the things that I do. But I was more thinking about this is my kingdom. And this throne that I sit on is one that I built for myself.”

To prepare for the performance Usher rehearsed 18 hours a day. When his staff left rehearsals around 8 p.m., he’d stay until 2 a.m. He wanted to make sure everything was perfect. Besides, the superstar’s prime time for creativity is between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

“I can’t get out of an idea until I accomplished it,” he said.

Those who work closely with him attest to how hands-on he is in the creative process.

“I never got a chance to work with Michael Jackson or Prince, but I definitely think he’s come from that same cloth,” said Mike Burton, who plays saxophone in Usher’s horn section. “He’s such a professional. He’s the first man in a building, last man out of the building. ... I think a lot of people see him (as) just a pop star, but he’s definitely channeling his inner Prince and Stevie (Wonder) and Donny Hathaway. He’s really a student of the music.”

Patton said Usher has always possessed a fireball of energy.

“At a young age, he was always bored,” Patton said. “He’s always been very energetic, very outgoing, very sure of himself. And I think (his restlessness) has gotten even worse.”

LaFace Records artists (from left) Usher and TLC pose with label head L.A. Reid in the Atlanta office in 1995. File photo courtesy of Sheri Riley

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Love for the A

During his Atlanta homecoming, Usher ended the night at Red Martini Lounge for an album release party. By his side was his wife, record executive Jennifer Goicoechea, and Atlanta songwriter Johntá Austin.

Now Usher’s business partner and COO, Austin first wrote for Usher back in 2008 after they met as teens while taking vocal lessons in Atlanta. Austin describes Usher as a generous friend who has to be reminded to put himself first sometimes.

“That kind of spills out even as a performer,” Austin said. “At the residency, the dancers or the skaters who are around him or any special guests that he may bring out — he is never against sharing his light. He really prides himself on helping performers find the best light so that they can shine along with him.”

Usher’s ninth studio album, “Coming Home,” debuted Feb. 9 at No. 1 on Billboard’s top album sales chart.. Photo by Tyson A. Horne/

Credit: Tyson Horne

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Credit: Tyson Horne

Usher’s ninth studio album, “Coming Home,” debuted Feb. 9 at No. 1 on Billboard’s top album sales chart. It is a love letter to Atlanta and those who have shaped its sound, both past and present. The 20-track album features collaborations with a load of Atlanta artists and producers such as Austin, The-Dream, Jermaine Dupri, Theron Thomas, J. Lack, Summer Walker, 21 Savage, Latto and more.

It’s also Usher’s first album as an independent artist, released via Mega, his new music company with LaFace founder L.A. Reid, in partnership with Gamma, the Larry Jackson-created music and technology platform.

“When I started in this city, I started as a kid who was just creative and wanted to bring some of my dreams to reality. Well, here I am back in this position. And now those dreams are reality, so I’m coming home to that experience. This ninth studio album represents the completion of that cycle in my life.”

The album has a lot of twists and turns that’s often hard to follow. For instance, conceived as a fun attempt to sample Billy Joel’s classic “Uptown Girl,” Usher’s “A-Town Girl” sounds a bit cheesy. And the HER-assisted R&B ballad “Risk It All” feels ill-placed among the more pop tracks that come before and after it. But, at its best, the album is a testament to an artist with a chameleonic voice that can handle any genre. He makes dreamy pop on the Busbee-produced “Kissing Strangers,” conquers K-Pop with Jungkook on “Standing Next to You,” and aces amapiano on “Ruin,” which features Nigerian producer and singer Pheelz. The latter song is laced with Usher’s hushed vocal tone that expresses a soured relationship of irreparable damage.

Usher’s trek into the world of afrobeats started with a trip to Ghana’s Door of No Return, a former transatlantic slave trade outpost.

“It was a life-changing moment,” he said. “I never cried as much as I cried on that day. I never felt so connected to this place ... something about that place made me feel like I was coming home, so I wanted to take a stab at working on amapiano and afrobeats. That song has a double entendre: one, amapiano and coming home; two, the idea of relationship and the concept of this vicious cycle that I’ve been going through as I’ve told stories like ‘Burn’ or ‘U Got It Bad.’”

On the groovy “I Am the Party,” produced and written by Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, Usher acknowledges his superstardom: “[Expletive] talkin’ ‘bout Verzuz with me, please stop / Know you think he is, but baby, he’s not,” he affirms.

Dupri, who worked on the album for at least five years, said he had Magic City in mind when writing the song.

“The club is here, but we are the people that bring the party,” the megaproducer said about his thought process. “I actually was thinking about it for a rap song, but then I was like, this could be something for Usher. I started taking the metaphor from all the things that Usher had that made him the party. People were going to Vegas strictly for Usher’s residency. So Usher became the party in Vegas.”

To prepare for his Super Bowl performance, Usher rehearsed 18 hours a day. When his staff left rehearsals around 8 p.m., he’d stay until 2 a.m. He wanted to make sure everything was perfect. Photo by Nolen Ryan for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nolen Ryan Photography

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Credit: Nolen Ryan Photography

Bryan-Michael Cox said he and Dupri wrote about 60 songs for the album. The Atlanta hitmakers also produced “On the Side” and “Believe” with Dupri.

“I think that’s what’s gonna happen with this next phase in his career — you’re gonna get a lot of music. What you guys witnessed on this album was kind of like a snapshot of a deeper catalog that I think eventually you guys will hear.”

One unreleased song that Usher says fans may get soon is a cover of Decatur-bred Lloyd’s 2007 classic “Get It Shawty.” J. Lack, Usher’s brother, produced the original song.

“At the time, I pulled the song aside because I really loved that song. I thought I could carry it, but I wasn’t putting my album out at that moment, and Lloyd was getting ready to put his album (”Street Love”) out, so he felt like Lloyd would hear the song and connect with it. He did. He loved it. That’s what Atlanta culture is about, though. We support each other.”

“Believe” is one of two songs on the expanded edition of “Coming Home.” For Dupri, the song has a deeper meaning than the blockbuster jam “Confessions Part II,” which he and Cox co-wrote. “Believe” was one of the first songs they made for Usher on the album. It was previewed on Instagram Live back in 2019.

“(The song) explains what I think a lot of people want to know about some of the questions they have for Usher but haven’t gotten the answers to. One of those questions for me was when he married Tameka (Foster, whom Usher wed in 2007 and divorced in 2009), and they broke up, he went back and had another baby with her. I wanted to know why. At the time, I wasn’t asking for a song, but I wanted to know why he went back. ... Usher said he wanted to believe.”

For Cox, having those personal conversations with Usher is what makes them a dream team for making R&B hits.

“We’ve been through every transition of his life,” he said. “We’ve seen and we’ve experienced our own transitions along with him, so this relationship is a very special one. It’s something that I don’t take lightly. A lot of people who have made hits for Usher aren’t close to him.”

Raymond v. Raymond

That intimate dynamic was pervasive throughout the creation of Usher’s 2004 magnum opus “Confessions,” which turns 20 on March 23. Dupri produced the album with Cox co-writing several songs, including “Burn.”

Last month, the diamond-selling album became 14x platinum, making it the highest-certified album by a male soloist in this century, having sold 14 million copies.

“I don’t know if it would sound too proud if I just said that’s who I am,” Usher told me about the honor. “I’m not concerned about who people think I am.”

Indeed, Usher doesn’t get caught up in leaving legacies. He focuses on the present, and for him right now that’s growing his R&B kingdom. Atlanta continues to be a source of creativity. He’s currently developing a scripted series about Black love in Atlanta inspired by his music. His Past, Present, Future Tour includes a whopping six shows at State Farm Arena in August and October.

After our interview, he recalls a point earlier in our conversation about our shared interests in afrobeats. I’m surprised he remembered what I’d said, given the topic was only two minutes of a roughly hour-long discussion during his extremely busy day.

Then, I remember that Usher, at his core, is both master and student — always listening, always perfecting and never afraid of experimentation.

“You got to find new ways to make history. [With ‘Confessions,’] I sold 1.1 million units a week. I’m one of the last artists of my genre to sell over 10 million albums. Those are standards that aren’t easily accomplished. They can be, but you have to find other ways to do it, so I’m just constantly looking for new standards to break and space to establish them, so that we remember,” he said.

“One day, I won’t be here, and it’ll be harder for me to advocate for myself. Only thing I’ll have is my records to remember and things that I’ve done, so until then, I’ll just continue to be creative and hope that you like what I’m doing because I like it. I enjoy doing it.”

Concert preview

Usher. Past Present Future Tour. 8 p.m. Aug. 14, 16, 17 and Oct. 17, 18, 20. $185-$450. State Farm Arena, 1 State Farm Drive, Atlanta. 404-878-3000,