Usher: Hip-Hop/R&B Power Players Cover Story Interview

Usher has also spent the last few years working on his ninth studio album —…

Usher has also spent the last few years working on his ninth studio album — his third on RCA — which he expects will roll out later in 2021. RCA is, of course, not a bad place to be for an R&B artist — right now, it’s home to next-generation powerhouses like Khalid, SZA, H.E.R., Normani, Doja Cat and Jazmine Sullivan. It’s also where Usher gets to work with longtime friend Mark Pitts, who was named label president in January. The two have history: A teenage Usher briefly lived in New York with Pitts and Sean Combs, who were rooming together at the time, while recording his self-titled 1994 album, and Pitts had a top A&R role at Arista during Usher’s early-2000s tenure there. Asked if he still sees that precocious teen in Usher today, Pitts laughs fondly. “The pain in the ass? Yeah, absolutely,” he says. “He was always singing in the hallways, whether it was the scales or something else from his vocal lessons. We’d be like, ‘Shut the hell up.’ And he still does that!”

Though Usher has steadily released new tracks in the last few years, Pitts credits Adult R&B Songs No. 1s like 2019’s “Don’t Waste My Time” with Ella Mai and 2020’s “Bad Habits” with “putting the battery back in the pack” for the new album, which was originally due last summer but postponed amid the pandemic. “That has given us time to make things as bulletproof as possible,” continues Pitts. “The game may be changing as to how new music is introduced, but what hasn’t changed is that it always goes back to making great, timeless R&B music. The rest will work itself out.”

Besides, Usher has always been a natural shape-shifter, building out his R&B foundation with forays into pop, EDM and trap — see 2018’s A, a joint project with producer Zaytoven paying tribute to Atlanta hip-hop — and working with everyone from Diplo and David Guetta to Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. A member of his team previewed half a dozen songs for Billboard, which feature a mix of old and new collaborators. There’s the Dupri-produced “Believe,” an uptempo breakup track; a new-lease-on-life anthem called “Fresh Air” produced by Mike Sabath (Lizzo, Meghan Trainor); and “Kissing Strangers,” a striking reflection on the aftermath of a relationship produced by the late busbee (Maren Morris, P!nk).

Collectively, those songs are reminiscent of the classic R&B sounds and intimate lyrics on a pair of his career-defining albums, 8701 and Confessions. Some of Usher’s most treasured hits have been the anguished slow jams that felt ripped from his diary, even if they weren’t strictly autobiographical, and Usher has lived a lot of life since his last album, including a divorce from second wife Grace Miguel in 2018. But there has been plenty to celebrate, too, including a new relationship with Jenn Goicoechea, vp A&R at Epic Records, with whom he is expecting a second child. (Daughter Sovereign Bo was born in September; Usher has two sons from his other previous marriage.) Even his voice sounds richer with experience. “He has always been an energetic singer and performer,” says RCA chairman/CEO Peter Edge. “But his vocals now are insane.”

Vegas, to hear Usher tell it, is where his story comes together: a chance to celebrate his legacy, sharpen his creativity and let his life off the stage thrive as much as his life on it. “I’m feeling like I’m about 18 right now — in terms of passion, not wisdom,” Usher says with a laugh. “There’s a playful nature that I think is coming back. I actually feel like I’m having fun. And that had been missing for some time.”

Why a residency, and why now?