ATLANTA — Sitting in Jermaine Dupri's Southside Studios, a place where Usher has made so many of his hit records over the past 10 years, the singer was as blunt as ever about the music industry now that his album-making hiatus is over.
"I feel like these kids have gotten a little too disrespectful, and I'm about to get [back in there], so just be ready," he said with a smile.
The man Ludacris calls "Ursher" says he's back on his grind full-time. He's rocking a full beard, jeans and a T-shirt — a full 180-degree difference in wardrobe from what he wore playing shady lawyer Billy Flynn in his 2006 Broadway debut, "Chicago" (see " 'Broadway Is No Joke': An Inside Look At Usher's 'Chicago' Rehearsals"). Since selling more than 10 million copies of his 2004 blockbuster Confessions, he's opened restaurants, found love (see "Usher Plans New LP — And Marriage — By End Of Year"), put out a movie (see "Usher Hopes 'Mix' Will Put Him On Path To Becoming The Next Will Smith"), recruited artists for his Us Records label (see "Usher's New Roster Making Him Hungry For His Own Studio Time") and worked on trying to help Hurricane Katrina victims (see "Usher, Green Day, Alicia Keys Sign On For Hurricane Relief Concert September 10"). But the activity that might play the most significant part in his new LP — which doesn't have a title or release date yet — is watching television. He says he's been sitting at home and seeing people copy his style. It's all well and good when they pay homage, but what gets him fired up is when they don't give him props.
"Well, for instance," he explained, "you got your artists who find their way through the circuit and are following and are not giving the respect where the respect is due. If you know [you're] following and biting, then, hey, give the respect. But if you're not, and you're creating your own thing, then you're good. You should just continue to find your own way.
"Listen, this is not a game out here, man," he continued. "You can't come around here and think that you're really starting the game. Understand, when I came up in the game and I found a trail, I was cool. Bobby Brown went this way, Michael Jackson went this way, Marvin Gaye, he created his little profile and he held to it. I didn't step on those toes. What I did was find a way and my thing and created my thing. Now you have my thing being built. So I look up, and I'm like, 'OK, I see you all. I see you all in the videos. I see you moving, I get it, but pay the respect, man.' "
Before carving his own niche, an adolescent Usher was compared to the likes of Jackson and Brown. Now that he's not only a superstar but a tenured veteran in the game, Usher has a whole wave of singers that are being compared to him — Omarion, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo being the top three. Although Usher is careful not to give the names of those he feels are not giving him and the game the proper respect, one can infer that Omarion, at least, is off the hook. Usher recently hopped on a remix of O's hit "Ice Box" ("I really liked the topic, the song was hot," Usher said — see "Omarion On Red-Hot 'Ice Box' Remix With Usher: 'It's Big, It's So Big' ").
"You know, there is only one [of me] at the end of the day," Usher added with a confident smile. "You can have a whole bunch of carbon copies of the real thing, but when the real thing comes, daddy's home! I'm here, man, and I'm not afraid to let it be known. When it's hiatus, you have fun, but when daddy's home, daddy's home."
When it comes to R&B, Usher separated himself from the pack years ago. His only competition for the R&B throne is R. Kelly, and in the pop realm, Justin Timberlake is the only name critics would even dare put in the same sentence as Usher. Still, sales of Confessions have toppled anything that either the Pied Piper or JT (as a soloist) have put out.
"I'm never gonna lose the competitive side of who I am and what I do as an artist. The last album was kind of like a stepping stone or a milestone as you would call it," he said. "It was kind of like a mountain. You know, you either go hard or you don't go at all, man. You either win or you go home. That's the attitude that I have always taken, and it's worked so far — being honest with my music, honest with which direction I'm going to go in and talking about whatever it may be. I tried to give you a little about what I think you want to hear, what I think you need to hear and what really matters. It's been a mission every time to try and better yourself or beat yourself. Luckily, I've been doing that repetitively, and on every album, I come back a little bit stronger and take a new direction.
"It's challenging when you get to a place where you're like, 'Man, what do I do next?' " he added. "You find yourself in a position where you say, 'Man, do I give it back to the people? Do I just give them a little bit more of what they want to hear? Do I give them the real side?' Whatever it might be, but it ends up being a collection of all of that, man."
The recording process of the album and its songs simply starts with conversation (see "Usher Finds 'Magic' With Jermaine Dupri On New Songs"). Usher and his producers and songwriters will just kick it. More often than not, those talks find their way onto the album in the form of songs such as "Confessions, Pt. II."
"I'm like the balancer of this project," Dupri elaborated, standing in the vocal booth next to Usher. "I just sit back and try to keep it balanced and let everybody else worry, let the record label worry about if it's gonna be bigger than Confessions. Let Usher worry about what he worries about. At the same time, I try to balance it out and say, 'Usher, let's make what we feel.' What we do is the magic, basically.
"For the first month or so of us being in the studio, it's all mostly conversation," Dupri continued. "[That will] drive me to that point of where I should go into the room and hear something that clicks. Everything you hear him say is something he wants to say. The way that we write is I just wait for him to feed me, 'cause it's in him. There's something he wants to say. He gives it to me, and I hear it some kinda way. He's much more focused on life than anything [else]. ... All the stuff that a lot of artists get excited about, he's been past that. Cars and all that other stuff, it's not on his mind right now. Life. Just life."
Usher admits that his personal life will once again play a part in the material he's coming up with. He is engaged and thinking about starting a family. Another incentive for him is, he says, is that the music industry bores him to tears sometimes and few people are doing anything innovative, let alone musical (Musiq Soulchild and close friend Robin Thicke are two he says are exceptions to his gripes). Then, of course, there is the drive to do it again.
When asked about the album's theme, the Grammy winner said, "I'd say real music [is the theme]. I think that this is a musical album, and when you hear the instrumentation, there is a difference. You automatically catch it, and that is right now. The depth of it comes when we are finished and we figure out all of the avenues, the highs and the lows. It's a journey, man. It's not just a sound. We take you on a remarkable journey. Pressure is what makes diamonds, man. The harder it gets, the better it is in its outcome. All I can do is what I can do best, and [that's] music."