Usher opens up about the Beckhams, Bieber… and how he’s swapped strip clubs for gardening as he talks about overcoming tragedy and temptation in an exclusive interview
- Usher’s upcoming album is a paean to manhood and its everyday battles
- READ MORE: Keke Palmer and Usher announce surprise new track Boyfriend – amid drama after she was outfit shamed by her baby daddy Darius Daulton
It’s a quiet Thursday lunchtime at a cigar lounge in suburban Atlanta, just a few hundred feet from Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team.
Usher, one of the biggest R&B stars in the world, is telling me about his bromance with David Beckham.
‘David’s been to many shows of mine, he’s always been a fan,’ says the eight-time Grammy winner, puffing on a fat Cuban cigar.
He adds, as if for balance, ‘And I’ve always been a fan of his, as a brand maker.’
Without missing a beat, the singer orders a glass of Rémy Martin XO, the cognac brandy he just happens to be an ambassador for.
Usher, 44, one of the biggest R&B stars in the world, has repeatedly been declared the heir to Michael Jackson’s throne by critics
He spends the next three and a half hours talking but not touching a drop.
Like Beckham, Usher has lived an extraordinary life of noughties male sex-symbol superstardom.
His 2004 album, Confessions, about infidelity and steamy nightclub hookups, dominated pop for a decade, with its anthemic bangers like ‘Yeah!’.
It sold 18 million copies worldwide and remains this century’s bestselling album by a black artist.
James Brown anointed him ‘the godson of soul’. Beyoncé called him the ‘Fred Astaire of our times’.
Critics have declared him the heir to Michael Jackson’s throne so many times he’s practically lawfully entitled to a piece of Neverland Ranch.
So – at least to this nonplussed, out-of-town journalist – it seems odd that the 44-year-old heartthrob would want to spend the afternoon on a nondescript outdoor patio by a sports stadium, musing candidly about fatherhood, middle age and his newfound love of gardening.
Usher, who picked this spot, arrives alone, without pushy retainers or hired muscle.
He’s dressed in an all-black uniform of angular puffer jacket by the Shanghai-based clothing brand Pet-Tree-Kor, Off-White trousers, Teyana Taylor x Air Jordan 1 sneakers, a pair of large diamond stud earrings in the conches of his ears and an oversized grey Hermès Birkin handbag.
It’s noon and the cigar bar has only just opened. We are so early that the waitress, who had barely unlocked the front door when we came in, appears rightfully confused as to why we’re here.
The star has a residency in Las Vegas, which, after 144 sellout shows, often with A-list audiences, will come to an end in December
She doesn’t even seem to recognise one of Atlanta’s most famous faces. (Usher lives in a two-storey European-style mansion in Roswell, an affluent town about a 20-minute drive away. His friend recommended our bar.)
It’s a long way from his glitzy residency in Las Vegas, which concludes in December after 144 sellout shows, with an eight-date interlude in Paris for Fashion Week, which kicks off today.
In the steamy Vegas show, he regularly asks A-list women in the crowd – these have included supermodel Winnie Harlow and actor Keke Palmer – if he can serenade them.
Our interview is to promote his soon-to-be-released album – a paean to manhood and its everyday battles, Usher has said, ‘speaking specifically to men or for men’ – which is expected to be followed by a big international tour next year, including UK dates.
And yet in the flesh, Usher seems more salt of the earth than high end.
He tells me he is currently building a vegetable garden for his kids: he shares sons, 15-year-old Usher (AKA Cinco) V, and Naviyd Ely, aged 14, with his ex-wife Tameka Foster, as well as a daughter, Sovereign Bo (three) and a one-year-old son, Sire Castrello, with Jenn Goicoechea, his long-time girlfriend.
‘I have an incredible partner who helps point out to me when I am not handling things the right way,’ he says.
And gardening? ‘I love plants,’ he replies – ‘period.’
What I’m struck by, in the hours I spend with him, watching him puff his way through six cigars, is that he’s a mix of frank confessions and introspection: one minute parsing fluently in internet wellness speak, the next evoking the strutting Vegas heyday of Frank Sinatra.
These days, he says, exhaling a cloud of smoke, he typically bumps into Becks at pit stops on the international fashion front-row circuit, or at spin classes in Los Angeles.
Usher’s upcoming album, which the artist has said is a paean to manhood and its everyday battles, is expected to be followed by a big international tour next year
Take a recent class taught by the motivational fitness coach Angela Manuel-Davis.
‘Angela decided that she wanted me to ride in the front, which is the hardest row,’ Usher says with a grin.
‘So, here I am sitting on a bike next to David Beckham, who is still performing at the same rate as he was when he was kicking a ball.’ The singer couldn’t keep pace. ‘He busted my ass, man.’
He doesn’t buy into the world of A-list exclusivity. ‘I feel like I’m at the age where I’ve just now begun to curate my experience,’ he says.
‘Everybody knows Atlanta is famous for strip clubs – and don’t get me wrong, I like to go to strip clubs here – but my experience is becoming a little bit different: older, more evolved and sophisticated.’
Perhaps that’s because he’s a small-town boy. He was born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in Chattanooga, a mid-size city with a population of just over 184,000 in Tennessee, just across the border from Georgia, ‘always moving, dancing and surrounded by music’ as a child.
Both his mother, Jonetta Patton, a medical technician and director at St Elmo Missionary Baptist Church, and ‘Nanny’ Nancy Ann Lackey, who he credits with allowing him to dream beyond ‘the harsh reality of living in the South and colour lines’, tipped him for greatness.
As his childhood singing career progressed, his mother left her job to become his full-time manager.
Usher and his children on Instagram, June 2023. The artist shares sons, 15-year-old Usher (AKA Cinco) V, and Naviyd Ely, aged 14, with his ex-wife Tameka Foster, as well as a daughter, Sovereign Bo (three) and a one-year-old son, Sire Castrello, with Jenn Goicoechea, his long-time girlfriend
Aged 13, having appeared on the television show Star Search, he was spotted by music executive Antonio ‘LA’ Reid, who signed him to his LaFace Records label.
The teenager then moved with his mother to Atlanta and was taken under the wing of up-and-coming mogul Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs.
Combs, who has described the singer as his ‘little brother’, welcomed him to stay at his house in New York. It didn’t take long before his name was being mentioned in the same breath as Prince.
Meanwhile his father, Usher Raymond III, was a heavy drug user and absent for most of his life.
‘Because I didn’t have a relationship with my father, it made me feel like he had given me something – his name – that was very hard to walk around with and hold, because, well, my father wasn’t there,’ he says.
At the age of 28 he married his girlfriend of two years, his former stylist Tameka Foster, who worked with the likes of Lauryn Hill and Patti LaBelle.
His mother did not approve of his relationship with a woman eight years his senior. She skipped her son’s wedding, prompting Usher to terminate their relationship as manager and client.
He wonders today if ‘women and men process things differently’. As he sees it, women ‘react to what they hear’, whereas men ‘react to what they see. We got two heads to manage,’ he adds. ‘So, I can’t even begin to help her understand how complicated it is.’
Indeed, Usher sounds like he’s still trying to figure out love and monogamy. He says his life revolves around the former, ‘but I can’t escape this reality of what I have to deal with: temptation; or loneliness; or the fact that you feel some sense of abandonment, because a lot of our mothers or fathers weren’t there when we needed them.
‘To walk away from temptation, that’s a heavy thing to deal with as a man. To women, it seems like men should just say no [to other women]’. For men it’s a lot.
Backstage with David Beckham at the O2, London, 2011. Usher admires the ex-footballer as a brand maker
‘Men need some relief, an ability to go somewhere to express themselves and emote, with as much honesty and transparency as possible.’
One relationship that never healed was that with his father. In 2007, after the birth of his son, who he named Usher V (the family name for all firstborn sons) he immediately tried to track down his estranged father to mend their relationship.
Usher found him – gravely ill in an intensive care unit, awaiting a liver transplant in a different hospital.
The singer’s friend, the rapper Nelly, encouraged him to be the bigger man: to pay the costs associated with whatever live-saving procedures were necessary. Usher agreed, but it was too late. After slipping into a coma during the transplant, his father died.
‘There were some very intimate moments that probably should be preserved in my life story, like looking at my father when he was unconscious in a coma, and then having to leave and go watch my [newborn] son.
‘But I remember showing a picture of my son to my father, who was unconscious, saying “Look at this, this is Usher. This is the continuation of us.”’
It was only a year later, in 2008, that he took a 14-year-old Justin Bieber under his wing, after spotting how the teenager had amassed a huge following on YouTube, in part for his covers of Usher songs.
Usher signed him to his new joint venture, along with talent manager Scooter Braun. Was he thinking about his legacy?
‘I had seen something in him that he could see himself at the time,’ says Usher, who also paired Bieber up with his own mentor, LA Reid. And now? ‘I’m more invested in our friendship than just having the dynamic to create something together.’
Pictured at the Bianca Saunders show, Usher took an eight-day break from his Las Vegas residency to attend Paris Fashion Week.
In 2008, Usher took a 14-year-old Justin Bieber under his wing, after spotting how the teenager had amassed a huge following on YouTube
Last year, Usher sold his share in Bieber’s catalogue for an amount estimated at $40 million.
The intervening years have brought more than their fair share of tragedy. In 2012, a jet ski struck and killed his 11-year-old his stepson Kile Glover, from his ex-wife Tameka Foster.
The boy was on an inner tube being pulled by a pontoon boat in a lake when the accident occurred. By the time Usher, who had helped raise Kile since he was four, joined Foster at the hospital, the child was brain dead.
Two weeks later he was taken off life support. The following year, Usher’s five-year-old son Usher Raymond V nearly drowned after his arm became caught in a pool drain.
‘I … waited so long to talk about what I was going through,’ he says now. ‘Divorce; a child that had a near-death experience; another child that passed, god rest his soul; a new marriage [to his second wife Grace Miguel, in 2015] that would eventually fail.
‘There were more existential shifts, too: growing older; music changing; the standard and mandate of how people promote things changing.’
How has all this altered him? ‘When you get older, man, you begin to take the time to slow down, to reap the benefit of what you sow,’ he says. Hence the cigar smoking, Usher explains.
The habit is a form of silent protest against today’s disembodied digital experiences.
A huge fan of international fashion – Usher is pictured here at the recent Louis Vuitton show at Paris Fashion Week – the artist has discovered a love of gardening in middle age
‘In America, a lot of times, it’s about everything having more flavour, being bigger, the most violent. But this’ – he inhales the smoke – ‘is about nuanced tastes, subtleties and notes. Basically, the opposite of vape culture.’
‘I come from a time when things were more analogue,’ Usher explains.
Fitness, for instance – ‘We all have a little extra now,’ he says, pointing to an invisible layer of fat over his washboard stomach – and finances.
Number one hits. He’s also achieved 18 top 10 hits and a huge 52 songs in the Billboard Hot 100
Copies of his bestselling album Confessions (2004) sold in the first week of release
Music awards won
Reported worth as of this year
Views of his most popular reel on Instagram, in which Usher is seen inline skating backstage in a lilac satin suit
Views of his TikTok challenge involving his two sons – while the lights are flipped off, Usher swaps outfits with his son, who’s wearing pyjamas
Albums sold worldwide
Outfit changes during February 2023 Paris Fashion Week (left). He attended all the big shows, showcasing different looks at each – with bold ensembles completed by a new orange hairdo
Paid for a one percent share of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team in 2005
New York is ‘unaffordable’, Usher says, even for him.
What does he want from life, this man who has performed everywhere from both of Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremonies to Michael Jackson’s funeral, and is now surfing the crest of a comeback?
I get the impression he’s still trying to work himself out. In a sense, Vegas was a way for Usher to celebrate his evolution.
In 2021, when he first contemplated doing the residency, the world was in the throes of the pandemic. Six years had passed since he had last toured.
‘I lost my footing,’ he says. ‘When you snap out of the light, you have no choice but to deal with all of the shadows.’
He pauses. ‘I had waited so long to talk about what I was going through. It might look easy, but sometimes people don’t realise the work and pain that goes into being an artist, or their idea of a personality.’
He reaches down into his designer bag on the floor and pulls out a plastic bag filled with ‘tubos’, individual Cuban cigars encased in tube-shaped aluminium packaging.
He cracks a sheepish smile, as if to acknowledge the ridiculous dichotomy of Ziploc and Hermès handbag.
‘No one man is an island,’ he says. ‘It may seem that way. But if you take an incredible plant and then you look below the surface, there’s roots that ground it.
‘That’s what makes me the artist that I am – the roots of my inspiration, the people that have supported, engaged and introduced me to the outer limits of what it is to be an artist.’
He looks down at the table, watching one of his cigars burn out. ‘I didn’t know all those performers or references. How could I have? What I did know is that I wasn’t afraid of the light,’ he says.
‘I wanted it. I wanted to stand on a stage. I want you to see me. I want you to see what I have to offer. I want to dance for you. I want to perform for you. I want to make you smile. When I get in your face, I want you to know what I am saying.’
- Usher plays Rendez-vous à Paris at La Seine Musicale, selected dates until 5 October; tickets available at livenation.co.uk
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