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Usher Reveals His Super Bowl Strategy — And The Halftime Veteran Who ‘Gave Me Some Notes’

today02/07/2024

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If there’s one word that Usher personifies, it’s “cool.” The word applies to his still-captivating vocals, deep catalog of multigenerational R&B/pop hits, fluid footwork, keen fashion sense — all of which I witnessed firsthand while watching Usher and his team rehearse for the launch of his first Las Vegas residency almost three years ago. Despite the pressure-cooker atmosphere inherent in that gamble — including lingering pandemic-related challenges — the eight-time Grammy Award winner remained chill and in control. So it makes sense that Usher would be just as unflappable on the eve of performing before the largest audience of his career: at the Apple Music Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show.

“It’s more about anticipation than jitters,” Usher says matter-of-factly in early January, having already logged a month of rehearsals in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta. “I’m so ready for it to happen. I just want to sing louder than I’ve ever sang; dance harder than I’ve ever danced. I want to celebrate the 30 years of this career where I’m very fortunate to have made songs and moments with people that they will remember forever.”

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When he started his My Way residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in July 2021, the coronavirus pandemic was far from over — audiences were still “in a life depression,” as he puts it. Two years and one bigger venue (Dolby Live at Park MGM) later, My Way finished as a massive success — and Usher is clearly ready for an even bigger stage. “What an amazing crescendo,” he marvels. “I played 100 shows in Las Vegas [across both residencies], and my 101st will be the Super Bowl.”

The crescendo won’t end there. This year marks the 30th anniversary of his self-titled debut album. And on the eve of the halftime show, the singer-songwriter will release his much anticipated, long-gestating new project, Coming Home — the first on his own label, mega, in partnership with music industry veteran Antonio “L.A.” Reid and in association with gamma., helmed by former Apple executive Larry Jackson. The gamma. deal, which Usher and Reid signed in February 2023, is the latest in a series of entrepreneurial ventures, including Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, that Usher has been lining up for the next phase of his career. And on Aug. 20, Usher will embark on the just-announced Past Present Future tour, playing 24 arena dates across the United States (with more dates to be announced).

Usher’s mother, Jonnetta Patton — who took him to LaFace Records when he was 13 and managed him for 17 years (he’s currently managed by Ron Laffitte of Laffitte Management Group) — isn’t surprised by her son’s stunning trajectory. “He could really sing at a young age,” she explains. “I said, ‘This is your next star. This is the next Michael Jackson.’ ” She adds with a laugh, “People said, ‘His mom’s crazy.’ ”

When puberty claimed Usher’s vocal range, everyone around him (including, at least momentarily, Usher himself) thought his career was over before it had even started — except for Patton, who made sure the label secured a vocal coach to help him find his voice again. “It was so depressing for him; he almost lost his record deal,” she recalls. “But Usher fought. He was truly determined and dedicated to the goal that he set for himself: that one day everyone would know his name. He stayed the course. [Today], he’s a true performer who has no fear.”

Bottega Veneta shirt, Alexander McQueen pants, Fear of God sunglasses, Jacquie Aiche and Veert jewelry.

To his legion of fans who sent four of his albums to the top of the Billboard 200 and nine of his songs to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Usher’s staying power was never in question. But in the past 12 years, since 2012’s Looking 4 Myself and after two albums (Hard II Love and A) that weren’t massive hits like his earlier projects, he has experienced an indisputable renaissance in tandem with his residencies. And those 100 shows set the stage perfectly for the Feb. 9 release of Coming Home, which coincides with the 20th anniversary of his RIAA diamond-certified 2004 classic, Confessions. Usher’s first solo album since 2016’s Hard II Love (and first studio project since 2018’s A with Zaytoven), Coming Home is, like Confessions, executive-produced by Usher and Reid (who dropped by the singer’s Billboard photo shoot but declined to be interviewed for this story). However, it’s most certainly not a sequel, one of the rumors that swirled in the long lead-up to its announcement.

The 20 tracks — which serve up R&B, hip-hop, pop, funk, Afrobeats and amapiano — include three recent releases: the R&B hit “Good Good” with Summer Walker and 21 Savage, the remix of the Michael Jackson-esque “Standing Next to You” with Jung Kook and the tender ballad “Risk It All” featuring H.E.R. from the Color Purple soundtrack album. But with the pulsating rush of tracks like “Keep on Dancin’,” the album delivers what fans continue to love about Usher: his emotive vocals, relatable lyrics and danceable beats. Standouts include the thematic title track with Burna Boy, a fun pairing with rap force Latto on the upbeat “A-Town Girl” (which contains elements of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”), breakup song and next single “Ruin” featuring Nigerian singer-songwriter Pheelz and “Kissing Strangers,” a striking reflection on a relationship’s aftermath.

The lattermost, a holdover from a stockpile of songs that Usher was considering for his then-untitled new album in 2021, was co-produced by the late busbee. Known primarily for his work with pop and country artists like P!nk, Maren Morris and Keith Urban, busbee might seem an unusual choice for Usher — but for the reinvigorated singer, such collaborators are part of a push to experiment more with different genres and rhythms while “digging deeper in what I choose to write about.” That doesn’t mean Usher is abandoning what has gotten him this far: The album is full of reunions with the R&B vets who helped craft his earlier successes, like Jermaine Dupri, Bryan-Michael Cox, The-Dream, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Pharrell Williams.

“[Malcolm] Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours rule for becoming the ultimate expert in one’s field or craft,” gamma.’s Jackson says, referencing the author’s best-selling Outliers: The Story of Success. “And Usher has achieved his 10,000 hours of mastery. He exudes it. He’s sitting at the top of his mountain — the first independent artist to ever play the Super Bowl.” And even at this point in his career, milestones like that still matter to Usher.

Fear of God jacket, pants and shoes, and Dolce & Gabbana gloves.

How did your residency prepare you for this global performance?

I’m happy that I’m coming off a successful residency, which helped me prepare and get into the rhythm of it overall. Otherwise, I would have had to restart and relive moments. But going on that stage every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday reminded me of what my music has meant, how people feel about me and how I feel about it all. After years and years of doing this, you can grow tired and frustrated, especially as music changes the standards of how we count what’s hot, what’s cool or what’s not. All of those things can get to your mind and make you even question if you really want to continue to do it. But when I went to Las Vegas, it just made me excited about all of it all over again.

Any hints you can share about what viewers can expect?

It will definitely be an event. There are special guests. And I’ve considered new songs. But you know, it’s 12 to 15 minutes. So it’s really hard to determine what moment matters more than others, especially with a new song. But there’s the dance, the wardrobe, the lighting, how long you stay in a song, the fact that the audience may sing along … It’s a lot. So I’m trying my hardest not to overthink it.

Did you get in touch with other halftime performers for pointers?

I’ve happened to be around a few people who’ve played the Super Bowl, and they did give me some pointers. I also happened to be on a boat not too long ago with Katy Perry, who gave me some notes. I heard that Rihanna stood up for me [in a December interview with E! News] and said something really incredible [about Usher’s qualifications for the gig]. I really appreciated that. I’ve watched every performer, analyzing how they maximized those 12 minutes. But you know, your moment is your moment. And this is a moment I’ve prepared for during the last 30 years.

Usher photographed on January 5, 2024 at 1859 Bel Air Road in Los Angeles. Dolce & Gabbana suit, Calvin Klein shirt, ETAI mask, Fear of God gloves and shoes, Versace sunglasses and Jacquie Aiche jewelry.

Which past halftime performances stand out the most for you?

All of them start with the idea that the Super Bowl changed when Michael Jackson performed. I’ve enjoyed Prince, Coldplay, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Madonna. There are tons of things that I was able to pick up on, from looking at how they chose to enter, what they did while they were onstage and how they chose to close. But the one that really stands out is Michael. Before then, they just hired a random band or whoever. Michael brought in his own director, obviously paid a lot of money and spent a lot of time designing that incredible moment. He reframed how we look at the Super Bowl live performance.

What components must a Super Bowl halftime show have to resonate with viewers?

You should have hit records. (Laughs.) I always say that a new song is a bit of a risk. But then, Beyoncé played something fairly new [“Formation,” at the Coldplay-headlined Super Bowl 50 in 2016], which I thought was really interesting, and The Weeknd did a pretty cool job as well. You also need to have a singalong moment. I think every Super Bowl should have a live band and your mic has to be on, or should be, because people want to connect with you. They want to feel it’s live and in the moment. And every halftime performance should have dancing. Even if the artist isn’t doing that, you have to have some sort of choreography.

Is there one song that you still love to sing and dance to the most?

I love to perform all my songs. But to this day, I still love “U Got It Bad.” I think because of the connection between me and the audience. Then the fact that the song kind of reinvented the ballad in a way because it’s almost like a tempo [song]. It was no longer like a slow, sultry singalong ballad about emoting. It has rhythm and I dance to it; that’s the other side. And the fact that people sing it the way that they do when I’m performing it, they feel a connection to it and it feels real. When it all comes together — the song, the connecting message to the audience, the dance — it almost feels like classical music.

It’s now the eve of releasing Coming Home. What can fans expect from 2024 Usher?

Every album offers a bit of where I was in my life and what I felt I wanted to share. But this is the first time that I’ve ever felt so comfortable to just be where I am. I’m 100% in my skin. And after 30 years, it shouldn’t even be a question about whether this is going to be greater than something in my past. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I’m just saying it’s hard because every time you put out an album, you’re trying to figure out how not to mess up what you’ve done in the past. And I don’t want to think like that.

I just want to love what I do, make what I love, allow people to come to my space and see what I have to offer. You might identify with it. It may help you deal with some of the sh-t you may be going through, or it may be helpful in making a baby or just having a good time. (Laughs.) I’m not thinking of this album in comparison to anything other than what it is: uniquely its own. And it’s a hard thing, especially when you’ve amassed an audience that goes all the way from “OMG” to “Think of You.” Now I want [the audience] to come back to see me one more time and know that I came home to this space where I’m comfortable.

This is your first solo album since 2016. What have you learned about yourself musically that has brought you to this comfortable, creative space?

That there are new genres that I can play in; ideas and collaborations, rhythms and things that I can participate in and not be beholden to just the overall standard of creating the classic R&B album. I learned that how people listen to music is really a snapshot nowadays. So you have to kind of change your approach of how you even sequence songs; people don’t even necessarily know the difference between a hook and a bridge. Therefore, the way I’m creating is being adjusted a bit because where I was, I am no longer, and the producers that I work with, they’re no longer there either. We’re in a new space. What I also have learned is, don’t hold on to music so damn long. You’ve got to let it go. I worked literally for about four to five years just collecting music [for this album].

I’m comfortable because I’m in my own zone, on my own throne. I did it my way. I’m quoting myself. (Laughs.) I have nothing to prove. I’m not racing time. If there’s any question about whether a 45-year-old artist can release music and still be relevant: I’ve been releasing music over the last year that’s definitely connected in a different way. I hope that sets a precedent for artists who are my age. I sing harder and with more precision than I’ve ever done on this album.

Custom jacket and gloves, Saint Laurent shirt, Purple Brand pants, Veert jewelry and Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and brooches.

What’s your take on R&B’s rebound over the last couple of years, with next-gen artists like SZA, Coco Jones, Victoria Monét, H.E.R. and Brent Faiyaz? Where will the genre evolve from here?

I’m very happy that there’s a new installation of R&B artists who care to be authentic to what they are creating, inspired by artists of the past. Everybody who has ever said to me that R&B is dead sounds crazy. Especially when I know the origins of R&B are in all other genres of music.

It’s about creating commerce in other spaces. Lovers & Friends [where Usher will perform Confessions in full in May] is a successful R&B festival that gives you a place to go and celebrate the songs that we make. We need things that you associate with R&B that you can buy into. Like with hip-hop — glasses, clothes, cars, jewelry, sneakers … ancillary things that people can access. R&B needs and has the potential to have those things as well.

My point is, I never felt like R&B was dying. I think it just needs expansion. We’re moving toward a standard where people are looking at snippets — TikTok, Instagram and other things — and when fans get it, they take it and do something with it. But if we start to think of it that way and create from that place, the standards for R&B will change. You won’t be able to compare it in an old-versus-new way. It’ll just be what it is.

What prompted your transition from major-label to indie artist as a label owner with mega and reteaming with L.A. Reid?

I wanted to do something that I felt would represent R&B and come from a place of passion. L.A. [who also consulted on the My Way residency] and I had talked about working together again. He was managing a few artists and still working on his production company, HitCo. This would be a journey that would require us resetting a second on our next go-round because we had worked together other times with Justin [Bieber] and on other projects. But he and I would find and develop artists who represent this new standard. And as the first artist on mega, I’d be the first up to bat. It seemed ambitious. But I couldn’t think of a better partner or better music man with amazing ears.

L.A. also has incredible sensibility in developing artists because he set the standard at LaFace Records for the artist I am and the way I think of entertainment. Then we managed to connect Voltron (laughs) with Larry Jackson, and it just went to another level because he had a similar interest in wanting to invest in artists and their creative; to pull from some of the things that we’ve done in our paths to create sustainable artists and teach them together. We have a studio in L.A. and Atlanta; we’re looking for artists and are very excited about the potential of building some incredible things together.

You reportedly sold your interest in Bieber’s catalog to HarbourView. Moving forward, do you plan to invest in technology and other music-related ventures?

I’ve never publicly made that statement [about Bieber]. However, I am at an incubation space in my life, looking for new ventures, new ideas, partnering with people who have like-minded interests in entertainment, not just for music but hopefully with the NFL, NBA [Usher holds a minority stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers] or other ventures. I think that we need a Black-owned team somewhere. A minority share is great, don’t get me wrong. I love it. But to at least have one team that is owned by minorities in a way that’s significant, continues to grow and you feel it — I would love to know that there is a minority and/or majority [interest] that is all Black.

Jimmy Iovine, Liberty Ross and I started a brand of skating rinks called Flipper’s, and we’re in the process of launching a skate specifically through Flipper’s. Every year now, during the hot season, we flip Rockefeller Center in New York into a skating rink. We flipped the Hollywood Palladium to a rink for Grammy Week last year, and we’re looking to do more of that. We also opened a rink in London. And I’m working on an official opening of a skating rink here in America. It is so important for people to realize that you need to smile and enjoy yourself. And the only way that I know I can pull that out of everybody is with skates.

Dolce & Gabbana suit, Calvin Klein shirt, ETAI mask, Fear of God gloves and shoes, Versace sunglasses and Jacquie Aiche jewelry.

Is your Las Vegas residency on hiatus for now?

Hopefully, we will continue to have a successful festival in Las Vegas with Lovers & Friends. I have roots there. I really did enjoy my time in Las Vegas. Am I going to go back, if I ever do, in the same way? No. I’m not planning on doing that right now. I do love what I’m seeing in Las Vegas with the type of curated experiences that are getting a front stage that they didn’t before. Love what Bruno Mars and Boyz II Men were able to do in Las Vegas and, now, to see New Edition and Wu-Tang [Clan] coming in. I love Vegas. It has an opportunity to be a cultural foundation for experiences that are not just about music but about entertainment, about other ancillary things that you experience. That’s the long of it. The short of it is, I’ll be back in Vegas someday.

Looking back now, what are the takeaways from your 30-years-and-counting career?

I really do enjoy what I do. And I don’t take kindly to the fact that people at times have doubted it. But it has definitely been motivating for me to continue to push to be great. To make something that was great and surround myself with people who don’t just want to see what I saw or what they saw but are invested in what’s happening currently and in the future. They’re invested in affirmations, being able to speak things into existence. To look in the mirror at yourself and say it, believe it. Then have the courage to not just hope but believe in what you were saying and staying invested in that. We’re as powerful as we choose to be. That’s what got me here. I just believed and didn’t pay attention to what anybody else had to say.

Location: 1859 Bel Air Road, Los Angeles @1859BelAirRd. Developer: Sean Balakhani @balakhani_estates. Architect: Mandi Rafati @tagfront. Interior Designer: Cesar Giraldo @cesargiraldodesign. Agents: Aaron Kirman, AKG, Christie’s International Real Estate @AaronKirman and Mauricio Umansky, The Agency RE @Mumansky18.

This story will appear in the Feb. 10, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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Usher Teases Super Bowl Halftime Performance, Talks New Music, ‘Confessions,’ 20-Year Anniversary & More | Billboard Cover

Usher teases his highly anticipated Super Bowl Halftime performance, talks about the advice and encouragement he’s received from other Super Bowl Halftime show performers like Katy Perry and Rihanna, his new album Coming Home, why people still resonate with his album Confessions 20 years later, his experience doing his successful Las Vegas residency and whether he’ll return to it, his thoughts on where the future of R&B music is going and more. UsherPlayin’ the Super Bowl man. Gail MitchellThis is […]

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