How Usher Became a Pop Music Institution

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 16 2012 6:16 AM

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

How Usher became a pop music institution.

(Continued from Page 1)

Listeners who equate stylistic consistency with integrity don’t look favorably on this kind of carpetbagging. Usher has different values. His motto, he told Spin, is “evolve or evaporate”—a sound creative credo, and an irrefutable business strategy. Usher has a bit of Tony Robbins in him: He’s a careerist who likes to talk about his success, and wax New Agey about it. “Knowing there is still love for me in the marketplace,” he said in 2006, “gives me energy.”

In this respect, Usher is an archetypal man of his pop generation. Our musical artistes have always been les hommes d’affaires—but where yesteryear’s stars were discreet about their grubby marketplace machinations, Usher and company flaunt them. With the record industry in ruins, musicians can’t pretend to be above hucksterism, kicking back in their manor houses and watching the album royalties roll in. Usher maintains a ruthless focus on what’s next, while sprinkling his stardust across multiple platforms—offering peekaboo glimpses of his personal life to the tabloids, working his Twitter feed, hyping his cologne (“Usher VIP is a confident, charismatic, masculine scent … a signature woody fragrance warmed by spices of nutmeg and exotic saffron”). In his songs, Usher celebrates workaholism and its rewards. “What Happened to U,” on the new album, pretends to be a plaint about the emptiness of success; actually, it’s a boast. “Money, clothes, fancy cars / Big old cribs, platinum on the wall / Seven Grammys, sold-out concerts / Damn, I've been working hard,” goes the chorus.

Usher’s main theme, though, is an unsurprising one: sex. His sound shape-shifts; flavor-of-the-day producers are hired and disposed of; but his songs always move in one direction: toward the boudoir. He’s an R&B Casanova in the classic mold. Over the past decade, R. Kelly’s slow jams have turned freaky, ironic, comic; other singers have followed suit. But Usher is a traditionalist, a preservationist. He has unironic faith in the old Love Man verities and the time-tested Love Man tools—strategically deployed melisma, oily come-ons, oilier pectorals. In “I.F.U.,” a bristling ballad on the Looking 4 Myself deluxe edition, Usher minces no words: “You should let me penetrate your everything.” Then there’s “Lemme See,” the latest single:

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She says she wanna take her skirt off
Be my guest!
I decided to take my shirt off
And show my chest
And we been sipping on that Merlot
So you know what’s next
Working intermissions, switching positions
We so explicit

Usher’s songs ooze egotism—like all R&B lotharios, he’s a preener. But he’s not glib. With Confessions (2004), the 10 million-selling blockbuster that is still his finest album, Usher’s songs took a darker turn, exploring the moral and spiritual toll of macking. On Looking 4 Myself, he’s at his best when the emotional stakes rise and the sex gets complicated. “Lessons for the Lover” is as genuinely kinky a song as any I’ve heard in a while: a paean to angry sex, the way a lovers’ quarrel can become an aphrodisiac. (“So my advice would be / No, don't leave, don't go so easy, no / Just let that argument turn you on / It's worth it.”) Recently, a new wave of revisionist Love MenFrank Ocean, The Weeknd—have given R&B a bleak, angsty overhaul. But Usher got there first, with less self-importance, and far punchier hooks. On “Climax” he throws down the gauntlet—firing his hair-raising falsetto at Ocean, The Weeknd, and other critics’ darlings.

Usher’s singing on Looking 4 Myself is terrific. In pure chops terms, he’s as gifted as any star of his generation, a singer and dancer of ludicrous magnetism and virtuosity. On the new album, he has history on his mind: channeling James Brown in “Twisted,” impersonating Prince in “Say the Words,” even doing his best Daryl Hall on the '80s-flavored title track. Usher’s real model, of course, is Michael Jackson. He’s not a genius like Jackson—the true pop revolutionary. But is there a black male crossover star who can make a better claim to Jackson’s mantle?

Usher doesn’t think so. Three years ago, in his performance at Jackson’s memorial service, Usher made his case. “Michael, you mean so much to everyone. Especially me,” he intoned, before launching into the ballad “Gone Too Soon.” Halfway through, Usher rose from his seat onstage, walked down a ramp, and placed his hand on Jackson’s casket: the heir receiving the blessing of the master. It was a moment of astonishing kitsch; it was also a great performance, with Usher singing, exquisitely, at the very top of his falsetto range. Normal dudes don’t have that gall—and normal dudes can’t hit those notes.

Correction, Feb. 12, 2014: This article originally misstated that Usher was the only performer who has had a No. 1 pop hit in each of the last three decades. Britney Spears has also achieved this feat.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.