USHER'S WILD RIDE
Growing from hitmaker to superstar by way of Puff Daddy, Ludacris and a messy romance with TLC's Chilli, a guy can find himself in a little trouble. Everybody say, "Yeah!"
USHER RIPS A BASEBALL CAP OFF HIS HEAD, smacks it down on a dressing-room counter-top and growls, "Fuck this motherfucking shit!" A minute ago, he pulled up in his silver Hummer to the Fox Theatre, the ornate 1920s palace in downtown Atlanta, to begin filming a video for his summer tour, but suddenly he started ranting and raving, then sprinted up four flights of stairs to this lounge, three paunchy crew guys trailing as he went by in a blur. They stagger to the doorway, huffing and puffing. "Motherfuckers in here now!" Usher yells. "I'm getting here late — for real — and still nothing's organized," he says, his normally adorable face, still childlike at twenty-five, contorted with rage. "Venue not what it's supposed to be, dancers all around downstairs and ain't supposed to be: As usual, everyone's tripping and I'm un-abreast of the motherfucking plans. Nigga's got to do what a nigga's got to do, and I ain't doing it. I ain't gonna do it." He grabs his hat and kicks the door open. "I be out." Then he pops back in, smiling a goony grin: "April Fools'! "You was gonna lose all your hair, man," says Usher. "You were gonna soil your pants from shit heat," says one of the crew to another. The April Fools' punking has been going on all day. First Usher called his A&R rep and said a producer he once had a beef with had come by his house with a baseball bat and smashed his elaborate glass-plate front door, so he'd grabbed a gun and was driving over to his house — "I'm gonna handle this like a real man! I'm gonna kill this dude!" Next, he called a friend and told him that he was about to commit suicide because of all the pressure of his career, and then he told his mother, who is also his manager, that he wouldn't drive an Aston Martin in the tour video, as planned, unless he had an endorsement deal — "Aston Martin think they gonna use me? Use me? I don't think so." He even called his publicist and said he didn't want to do this story. "I sold millions of albums in my time and never been on the cover of ROLLING STONE before?" he says. "Shoot, I thought they don't put black faces on those covers."
Usher leans back in the dressing-room chair, content with the havoc he has wreaked. His body, cut like a professional tennis player's, hums with energy, and he's wearing jeans slung so low that you not only see the waistband of his boxers but can actually make out cheeks. His personal assistant and best friend, Keith Thomas, starts to trim his hair and the room goes quiet, the buzz of the razor and snip of the scissors all there is to hear. Then Thomas breaks up. "The best was waking Usher up this morning," he says, snickering. "We were like, 'Forget 1.1 million! You sold 2 million albums yesterday!' He was all, 'Duh, I did?' "
Usher laughs, and then he nods slowly, staring at his reflection in the mirror. "Yes, sir," he says.
SELLING 1.1 MILLION ALBUMS THE first week out gives you some serious bragging rights, and Usher isn't above taking them. "This is just the beginning," he says of the success of Confessions, his fifth album -- the fastest seller since 'NSync's Celebrity in 2001 and an R&B record-setter -- which kicks off with the up-tempo "Yeah!" with Lil Jon and Ludacris and is chockablock R&B from there on out. "I see a sea of people in an auditorium -- no, a dome, full of people, as far as you can see," he says, splaying his arms out. "I see millions of albums, huge houses, much prosperity -- I'm going to be one of the richest motherfuckers in the world. I've always been highly favored. There is a reason I've been kept the way I have, to make it out of situations that men normally wouldn't have been out of with women."
One of these situations, of course, is the one that contributed to Confessions' staggering sales: his breakup with Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, seven years his senior, the girl he coveted as the hottest chick in TLC way before they met. After they dated for two years, Thomas moved into his house. Then they started to fight, over stupid things, and they finally broke up a few days after New Year's 2004. Usher says Thomas kept calling, though, obsessing about whether he'd been with other women (he'd previously said he hadn't, but she wasn't so sure). "I said I didn't want to talk about it over the telephone," Usher says. "So she came over, but I had to do an interview. She said, 'You running.' I canceled it and sat down. I didn't take the blame out on her, say that she as a woman didn't give me what I needed. I said, 'This is something I did, it was a fucked-up decision.' She wanted to know who and how many times, and I said, 'That's not important.' Then she got on the radio and talked about it -- I could not believe that she did that."
On Atlanta's Q100, Thomas told a DJ that Usher had committed the "ultimate no-no"; Usher retaliated by publicly claiming that she had applied pressure to get married. But now he says that he'd thought about marriage, too. "I had a ring for that girl and everything, and she never knew it," he says. A jeweler in LA. made him a ten-carat diamond ring, and he had it right in his pocket. "Something was not right," he says. "I felt like I was in a desert, running, and then there was this mirage. It's beautiful, but wait a minute: Let's make sure it's real." Nevertheless, a couple of months later, he asked her to marry him -- while they were having sex. "She was like, 'You coming on crazy,' " Usher says now. "Thank God she didn't take me serious. It was just that it felt so good, you know? And I had been talking to my friend, who told me that's how he proposed to his woman."
Today, what Usher has taken up is cigars. He's at his highly interior-decorated five-bedroom house in Alpharetta, Georgia -- it's the same subdivision where Faith Evans and Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown live, only a block from former Atlanta Falcons player Andre Rison's old house, the one TLC's Lisa Lopes burned down in 1994. "The hood of Alpharetta," Usher calls it. He's doing back-to-back interviews and photo shoots for media riled up by the 1.1 million, and every time he ducks into the kitchen, where I'm waiting, he's got a cigar dangling from his mouth or tucked behind his ear. Terence Carter, his road manager, goes out twice to pick up a series of cigar cases and shafts, and upon his return Usher examines each one carefully, selecting a small silver mini-humidor the size of a Filofax. He'll carry it everywhere he goes for the next couple of days, but he won't actually smoke any cigars.
"What is all this?" asks Jonnetta Patton, his mom and manager, moving the cases aside to make a lunch of grilled chicken and broccoli (a big, jovial woman, she has lost twenty pounds by eating primarily this). "It's not April Fools' anymore."
"His new thing," says Carter, laughing. "The James Dean thing."
As Patton extols the virtues of colonies, Usher harasses Keith Thomas about what to do with his hair today. "Let's do some wild shit," Usher says. "Polka dots, something different. A mohawk!"
"Can't be a mohawk," says Thomas. "Puff already did that."
"Fuck that, young brother," says Usher. "He freaked it to look all classy. We freak it to look like I don't give a fuck."
THAT USHER DESPERATELY gives a fuck, however, is not up for debate. Despite his attempt to project an outlaw image, worrying impulses manifest themselves in small tics, like separating M&Ms in different bowls by color, which he does to keep his hands busy when he's sitting around, or the need to coordinate the fifty or so pairs of jeans in his closet by fade color. Whenever he goes out, in addition to carrying $5,000 in cash ("Best of the best taught me that," he boasts), he takes along a small bottle of hand sanitizer. "You have no idea how many germs there are out there," he says, rubbing some of the clear gunk on his knuckles. "Think about how many times you grab your nuts, as a man. I know I scratch my ass, pick my nose -- who else is doing that? At one time I wouldn't even shake anyone's hand. I'd give them a pound."
Usher wasn't actually eating the M&Ms when I met him: He'd seen The Passion of the Christ a few days earlier, and it had affected him so profoundly that he had decided to fast, in hopes of glimpsing a bit of what God had in store for him -- "I'm experiencing some transfer of energy, of spirit, right now?," he says. To feel deeply, to remain sensitive, perhaps oversensitive, to what both God and women have to offer, is at the core of who Usher wants to be, and the story of his upbringing is a trail of tears. Raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by a mom who worked as a BlueCross BlueShield claims adjuster and led the local Baptist church choir, Usher Raymond IV never knew his dad -- his mom left him when Usher was just one and a half. Though they have talked a little in recent years, father and son are still estranged. "He was a fly guy, a player, into drugs," says Usher. "I can't tell you exactly about him, because I don't know the dude."
Usher, then, grew up surrounded by women, and loved it: He'd always try to steal kisses from girls at church, crying if they didn't comply. "Spoiled brat, that's what I was," he says. "But the ladies liked me, too." Dreams of becoming a preacher shifted at twelve, when he joined a local singing and step group, with the handle Cha-Cha. ("I got it from one of the tones on my Casio recorder," he says. "Cha-cha-cha. How corny.") His mother was at this point convinced of his talent, and she insisted on moving the family to Atlanta so he could try his luck in the big leagues. Usher was devastated. "I was crying every day," he says. He even ran away one night, waiting in a local baseball field with his backpack for a friend to pick him up; his stepfather showed up instead. "I was screaming, 'I hate you, you took my dreams away!' " says Usher.
Talent shows in Atlanta led him to a scout who set him up with DJs, a Star Search spot and eventually Bryant Reid, brother of Antonio "LA" Reid, of LaFace Records. The same day Usher performed "End of the Road" for LA and his partner, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, at their company headquarters, they signed him. A year later, though, puberty hit. "Looked like a damn machine gun hit my face," says Usher. "Then I got acne medicine that made me all light and shit." He lost his voice, too, and it looked like he might lose his deal. He was confused and angry, and he even punched a wall one night. "How can you embrace me and then all of a sudden you don't even want to return my phone calls?" he says. "The night I hit that wall was intense. I took off for thirty minutes, nonstop, five in the morning, running, running, running. Finally, all out of breath, I thought, 'You know what? I don't care what they think. I'm going to win.' "
So he had a bandage on his hand in 1994 when he arrived in New York, which was where LA sent him to craft an image and an album with Puff Daddy. "Hardest days of my life," he says. "I had to knuckle up, figure shit out in New York by my motherfucking self." They called him Baby Huey, and he was the youngest member of the Bad Boy posse. "Puff introduced me to a totally different set of shit -- sex, specifically," says Usher. "Sex is so hot in the industry, man." While he was in New York, he lived at Puffy's house in Scarsdale. "There was always girls around. You'd open a door and see somebody doing it, or several people in a room having an orgy. You never knew what was going to happen."
Usher experimented with women, too, but he says he didn't actually consummate sex until he was nineteen. "Strange, but I never busted a nut before then," he says. "I'd just do it until I could tell the girl was feeling good, and then I'd stop."
Reid, who once owned the Alpharetta house where Usher now lives, executive-produced two of Usher's albums under BMG's Arista Records until the beginning of this year, when he was abruptly fired, and the label shuttered. Reid jumped to Island Def Jam, and Usher stayed with BMG, at Jive. Usher says that he hasn't heard from Reid lately. "What kind of cocky motherfucker doesn't return your phone calls?" he asks. "C'mon. Maybe he's busy. But I find it disrespectful. He's not even called me to congratulate me on my 1.1 million. What? Before the news, during the news and after the news, not one call from LA. It's cool -- I'm not expecting one. But it did say a lot about his character." ("Usher's real sensitive," says Reid, adding that he told Usher's manager to relay a message. "By the way," he points out, "we share the success, and he didn't call to congratulate me, either.")
Usher is driving on the freeway now, with the Black Eyed Peas' Ekphunk, which he's been listening to nonstop, pumping in the background. "Man, I'm hungry," he says. A minute later, his phone rings, with his mother on the line. She has booked him into an awards show he doesn't want to do without asking him about it first, and now he'll look like a diva if he pulls out. "You didn't even consult me?" he asks angrily, beginning a five-minute rant that increases in pitch and intensity. "I'm not doing it, dawg. I'm not going to be part of your madness. You're playing this like a game, and you just lost a round! You're not thinking of what's good for Usher -- strategic moves, deliberate movement." He's quiet, for a moment, and then there's an ugly crescendo: "I'm not gonna do it. I'm just not going to do it! I'm-a talk to you later."
He flips the phone up and stares out the windshield. This time he does not say, "April Fools'."
SINCE USHER IS ALWAYS RUNNING hours behind schedule -- "Boy wears a $40,000 watch with the wrong time on it," says Carter -- it's the middle of the night before we start talking about sex. It may have taken him a while to get comfortable with the whole orgasm thing, but once he did it became inextricably linked with love for him. "You Make Me Wanna," on I997's My Way, is about the best relationship he's ever had, he says. "Three women at one time: I know it was wrong, but it 'worked for me,' he says. "I was with one woman who was really supportive, like a backbone. Then there was a homey, who knew about the other two, and another where it was sex, sex, sex, all the time. The song's about leaving the backbone for the sexy girl, which I did. It didn't work, though: You can't turn a ho into a house-wife."
Despite these fighting words, Usher is feeling lonely tonight, it's clear. He talks about Karon, the girl with whom he first fell comfortable enough to finish sex -- on one hand, he has a tattoo of a "K" and a heart: "I guess I thought it wasn't a good idea to get her whole name," he says later. "That way I can always hold out for a Keisha or something." He's messing around in the basement recording studio with his half brother James Lackey, 19, who looks exactly like him but miniaturized. A Girls Gone Wild commercial comes on the TV "Dude, they're really doing it," Usher says, mesmerized by the image of two girls making out on the floor of some skanky bar. "Where are these girls? I don't ever see these girls. I want the girls or Girls Gone Wild. Come see me, man."
Earlier, though, he was up in the room that Chilli's son used to stay in. There are blue walls and bunk beds with red comforters, a graffiti cityscape across one wall and a black kid smashing through the air on a skateboard. No one has been in here in a while -- little New York cabs and Harley Davidsons are lined up like they're in a parking lot. "It ain't easy to walk through this damn house," says Usher. "To see this room. There was a warmth here that's gone. There was a lot of love in this house, you know." He fiddles with the clasp on his cigar case.
"Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I did call Rozonda," he says later. "Would it become a good thing or would it become a bad thing? I think it's best that I don't call. She just sort of stays where she is, and I stay where I am, and if it's ever meant for us to speak again, it'll happen."
It's 4 A.M. when he asks me if I'd like to spend the night in his guesthouse. "Just don't say some Rick James I-put-you-in-the-closet shit," he says. He puts out clean towels, runs to the big house to get a new toothbrush and blows me a kiss good night.
ON A CLOUDLESS SATURDAY, Usher travels from the Alpharetta hood to Chattanooga for his cousin's wedding, at a boxy new church with the charm of a civic center. The bridesmaids, in baby-blue polyester, sway behind LaShea Williams, pretty and petite as she gazes up at her towering groom. The pastor is going on about familial responsibility, about how Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman; Usher's cousin is a handful, though, and he keeps winking and snickering at the congregation throughout. "The role of the husband is the head," the pastor repeats, and then laughs. He nods at the groom. "You've got your hands full, my man," he says. "You maybe tall, but that's all."
After Usher takes photos with an endless stream of second cousins, he turns to his mother and brother. "When I die, I want y'all to go to the clear port -- not the airport, to the clear port," he says.
"What?" says Patton. "We just went to a wedding, and you're talking about a funeral?"
"Hear me, because I ain't written this in my will yet," he says. "It ain't gonna happen tomorrow; I could be 100 -- the population of people at 100 is growing. I might even be 120 -- man, I'd be miserable if so, but I might be. Anyway, there'll be a helicopter or jet waiting in Atlanta, and I want you to take me here to Chat. On the jet I'm talking about, you have to be cracking jokes, having fun, the whole nine around my casket. Matter fact, don't even walk at a pace when you get off -- I want you all pimp-walking, you know, pimp-strolling down the aisle. And then have a bigass show and party, with the hot artist at the time playing, and you playing all your hits, too," he says to James. He sighs heavily and shakes his head. "I got to think about a funeral, because wedding ain't in my vocabulary," he says. "That'll be the big event right there. Wedding -- nah."