"It's about time for me to get back in and put my 10 cents in it!"

Usher says his long layoff from making records is over: The singer is back in the studio and expects to have a single and album out by the middle of next year.

"I feel it's about time for me to come out with an album," he said via phone from Atlanta on Tuesday. "I'm not extremely enthused about where music has gone. I say that coming from listening to artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson — those great artists and iconic musicians. I feel music is at a standstill."

Usher says he does like what Justin Timberlake and John Legend are doing right now, and that Robin Thicke has released the album of the year with The Evolution of Robin Thicke (see "In Thicke's Corner: Lil Wayne, Busta Rhymes, Pharrell"). Thicke is one of the collaborators on Usher's upcoming opus.

"His album is banging, but also as a producer and writer, he's amazing," the singer said of his friend. "We've been able to get to a point where we can work very easily together. I'll give him an idea and he'll understand exactly what wavelength I'm on."

Jermaine Dupri and the production teams of Dre and Vidal and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are all scheduled to collaborate on the record — as is Jay-Z. Usher, who appears on the Pharrell-helmed "Anything" from Jay's Kingdom Come LP, said he and Hova did a trade-off.

"Jay-Z came to me with the record," Usher recalled. "He said, 'This is one I don't want you to miss out on.' We had been talking for years about doing a record, and as a result of this, we're going to work again on my album. So look out for that next step, but it's a hot one on his album."

Usher has been called many things over the years, but he emphasized that "James Brown" will not be one of them — at least not at the moment. He said reports that he has signed on to play the Godfather of Soul in an upcoming biopic are untrue.

"That was a press release that was put out. I haven't been signed on to play James Brown, but it would be an honor to be considered for the role," he said.

Other projects on his plate are opening up some restaurants around the country, developing a fragrance, promoting his protégés — the R&B group One Chance, who are signed to his Us Records label and have their debut album on tap for early next year — and delving further into helping the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina. His charity foundation, New Look, has started an initiative called Our Block for which the group is helping to rebuild and revitalize city blocks in New Orleans, one street at a time (see "Usher's New Charity Encourages Kids To Dream Big").

To help with the funding of the project, he's teamed with Armani Exchange to create "Love 4 Life" dog tags. These dog tags are available at Armani Exchange stores and on the company's Web site (which can be accessed through New Look: www.ushersnewlook.org), and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the Our Block effort.

"I don't have all the answers but I am trying my hardest to come up with a solution," he said.