In the 15 years that USHER has been an ASCAP member, he has continuously pushed the envelope - as a songwriter and performer but also as an actor, dancer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Today he defines the meaning of a superstar. But what defines him is an adventurous spirit that is changing the sound of modern music. Here's how Usher and a team of the world's best producers made an album for the ages.
"THEY SAY LIFE IS A BATTLEFIELD. I SAY BRING IT ON," goes the opening lyric to "Numb," a track from Usher's seventh studio album, Looking 4 Myself (RCA Records). Never one to shy away from a challenge, musical or otherwise, since being discovered on Star Search at age 13 and releasing his self-titled debut album before he was even out of high school, Usher takes on the world - stylistically - on his new project. By mixing electronic dance beats ("Euphoria"), old-school R&B grooves ("Sins of My Father") and dubstep ("I Care 4 U") with new wave sounds ("Looking 4 Myself" with Empire of the Sun's Luke Steele), modern club anthems ("Scream"), retro-soul ("Twisted" with Pharrell Williams) and his trademark silky vocal prowess ("Climax"), this courageous crooner does nothing less than attempt to revolutionize pop music by bringing a whole new level of feeling and depth to the international dance party
To accomplish this experiment, Usher tapped a team of special musical forces, namely some of the world's top producers, including Diplo, Rico Love, Jim Jonsin, Salaam Remi, Pharrell Williams, Max Martin and others, who all brought their unique expertise and creative flair to their respective tracks. Their collective efforts have already paid off. Released on June 12th, Looking 4 Myself shot to the top of the Billboard 200, becoming Usher's fourth #1 album.
From 1997's My Way album, in which he co-wrote and produced several tracks with Jermaine Dupri, including the #1 single "You Make Me Wanna," to "Without You," his collaboration with David Guetta from 2010's Raymond V. Raymond, Usher has always struck just the right balance of rhythm and soul. Looking 4 Myself takes that approach in exciting new directions and, seemingly, to a whole new audience - the international dance circuit. As he celebrates 15 years as an ASCAP songwriter, Usher talks to Playback about what drives his craft and career.
You've been an ASCAP member for 15 years, and in the business of making music for even longer than that. How do you think you've evolved the most as a music creator from your early days to this new project?
Evolution is a matter of exposure. The more that I've been able to get out and try different things, be around different people and have different musical experiences, it has allowed me to grow. I think it's really a product of that. In terms of the liberties that I've taken as an entertainer, that's really a product of just being in a creative space. The longer you do it the more comfortable you feel in exploring and trying different ideas, always with the idea of growth and evolution in mind.
Are there things that you still find artistically challenging when you sit down to get something out of your head or your heart and into your music?
Yes and no. When you're trying something new, it's obviously newly charted territory, so there's no point of reference. The work starts with what you were inspired by and how you feel. If it feels good, then you continue to move in that direction. If it doesn't, then maybe you reevaluate it, and you go to what you know is your most comfortable space. In a lot of cases that means my voice.
You've had the great fortune of collaborating with some of the top producers in the world. Your new album is reflective of that. What, in your experience, makes for the most fruitful collaboration with a producer?
The less ego, the more fruitful! I know a lot of the people who I work with have had hit records before, or have had a great track record of success. You have to approach any creative process where you're making something that hasn't been done before, or something that's actually going to be impactful or innovative, as though this is your first time doing it. You almost have to go back to the place of creativity that got you where you are for a moment, just to be fresh. Stay fresh and have fun! That has always been my motto for all of my sessions. You don't come in with a preconceived notion of what you've done, or what you're capable of, because we all know why we're here. We are all professionals and great at what we do; we don't need to bounce our egos off the walls. Just get in there and have a good time. Come with your A game! Come with your best. I'm going to come with my best, and hopefully we'll meet somewhere in the middle.
Has the process of taking a seed of an idea and turning it into music changed much for you over the years?
When you first show up, it's all business. There's a producer, there's a designated writer, a designated creative staff of people who are part of a label. Now, the standard of how you make music, how you distribute it and market it has changed. Now it's really based more on personal influence and personal taste. You could be a Lady Gaga or you could be a 2 Chainz. You have to have a sense of confidence that you know what you're doing and you believe in it. If you don't, no one else will. I do think that over time I grew a lot more comfortable with my decisions. I didn't start that way. I was a product of being around a lot of incredible producers and writers that helped me find my own way of talking. I still work with other producers and writers in creative spaces. It's like, if you want to produce an all-star athlete, it's not just one person who helps that athlete get where he is - it's not just him. It's his effort, his will, but there are many different individuals involved. He's got a trainer, a coach and a nutritionist; he's got all these different people. Music is the same. The more experimental you are, the more creative you are with the people you work with. The more you just go for what you feel and have fun with it, the more liable you are to create something incredible.
Your new record is certainly incredible. After the massive success of Raymond V. Raymond, what were the driving factors in the direction you wanted to take in crafting this new project?
Mostly it was exposure to new music. I traveled a lot more between Raymond V. Raymond and Looking 4 Myself. I traveled outside the country. I listened to a lot of different music. Being in New York City and in Los Angeles, I was exposed to a lot of really artistic stuff. For instance, in New York, I listened to a lot of different music and the whole New York culture inspired me. When I went to Coachella in the summertime, that became a great inspiration for me when I was ready to go back in the studio. Also, I had an incredible team around me. Mark Pitts, who is my A&R and who shares the executive producer credit on this album with me, helped keep the balance. When I would go a little bit too creative or a little too far, he'd say, "You know what? Check out this record." And he would throw it in the pot. It's almost like gumbo!
Working with Rico Love, I gave him a clear vision of what it was that I wanted in terms of reference records and ideas, by having him there with me at Coachella. He then went on his own, and started working on records to come up with different inspirations. Then he came back to the studio and we began to work. It was a little odd for him working with producers that he had never worked with before, but again, in a session it's about not having an ego. It was a little odd for him at first because they had different styles. I had him writing with new producers and exploring new ideas.
Then, we went with the classic stuff that we had success with before, such as with Jim Jonsin. Before you know it, the guys came up with record ideas. "Looking 4 Myself" came 100% from him, but it was an idea based off of many conversations that we had, listening to Empire of the Sun, an Australian band that I really like for their music. So I reached out to the band's Luke Steele and asked if he would participate on the record with me. I just wanted my fans in America to know that that's the type of music that I like and listen to and am inspired by. But I also wanted people to know that he's also somebody that would be cool to check out.
Do you get the sense, having traveled and performed in front of audiences around the world, that peoples' minds are more open now, at least in America , to different sounds and different combinations of styles than even five years ago?
Many reluctantly so, because formatted radio forces you to listen to one thing. But I think people definitely have become more receptive as a result of artists traveling abroad. European artists take in a wide range of musical culture. A lot of it is classical culture, but for the most part, they are already exposed to this whole new era of music known as electronic dance music, or EDM. All those different styles come second nature to them because they hear it all the time. In America, it's a little bit different. There is a pop station, and there is an urban R&B station. My whole point was to create something that felt like an evolution.
Electronic dance music is so hot now. You have so much soul in what you've done over the years and EDM comes from a different place. It's more about the rhythm and losing yourself in the repitition. Why do you think it's so popular, and what did you enjoy about combining what you do with that kind of sound?
Just being creative, man, and just finding different textures. When you go to foreign places like Sweden, Ibiza, Germany or France, they feel tempo in a different way. They like things that are a little more upbeat. Those songs help you to introduce your style and your music to their world. Producers like David Guetta, Skrillex, Calvin Harris and Diplo understand bridging the gap and creating something that is pop but still having enough substance to be carried beyond the radio.
You titled your album Looking 4 Myself, even though this record seems so bold and confident. What are you still hoping to discover at this point?
Just constant evolution. I think we all are evolving. I don't think it has anything to do with an arrival or finding anything definitive. I think the fact that you're continuing to look allows you to grow. Living in the moment is what created the content on this album. And also too, for me as a person, just having to go through so much. The whole point is just to evolve as a person. I think that we are always looking for something and always growing. That is what growth is, just continuing to look and trying to build on what you are. As I look out in the audience, there's not one type of Usher fan, so I have to make music that I think would be suitable for everybody. That is what allows me to have versatility in my sound. I make sure that the demographic of people who like my music are "earthlings." This is human music. It may be vulnerable at times. Even the statement itself may indicate that maybe you didn't find something or maybe you're looking for something. I have to say that within the last two or three years of my life, I went through a lot of hard times. In those moments, that's when I began to ask: What should I do? Am I in a bad place, or is this a place of growth for me? I always chose to look at it as growth - moments to create.
The world today is full of disturbing news, but what you do as a popular creator of music brings so much joy to the world. How do you view that role? Is it a responsibility?
I think everybody has a different approach of dealing with the drama of life. If you make inspiring music, although you may not be touching on a specific situation, you know that people find inspiration in what you're saying. For instance, the song "Numb" could be applied to so many different things because life is a battlefield, but you don't give up, you just keep pushing through it. I know things get complicated, but you have to just continue to strive for your best until you're done, until you die. Remember that whatever doesn't harm or hurt you only has the ability to make you strong. I don't always choose to use my music to address social issues or the reality of what I think the world is. I just find inspiration in the music. However, I do find other ways, philanthropically, to insert myself, through engaging youth. My foundation has worked for the last 11 years to continue to build future leaders and inspire them to be different, to make it out of high school and then hopefully get a college education, and to possibly receive a grant or receive support. That is how I make my contribution - by investing in the youth of our future.
I understand you're going to play Sugar Ray Leonard in a biopic. In your preparation for that role did you discover similarities between the art of a boxer and the art of a music creator?
Both types of artists take a lot of hits. Especially if you've won. You always have to face the reality of what you've done before. You may have won many bouts before, but now you have to go up against a new bump. You have to find a way to break them down or get back into it. I think a great similarity is that you have to see it before it happens. Every boxer can tell you that you have to visualize your victory before it happens. You have to have an idea of what the game plan is, then you can go in there and execute it. Just as it takes a lot of hours in front of a mirror to be a great dancer, it takes a lot of hours in the gym to be a great boxer. Perfecting your speed, being on your defense, understanding what works and what doesn't. It's all about calculating the win.