The stakes are higher than usual for charismatic R&B vocal star Usher, who launched his eight-week, 25-city “OMG” tour in Seattle on Nov. 10.
His two new albums, “Vs.” and “Raymond v. Raymond,” both released this year, are arguably the least inspired efforts of his career, artistically speaking. Both are weighed down by generic ballads and dial-by-number dance jams that make him sound distracted, if not disinterested.
While both albums have done well on the charts and yielded hit singles — including “OMG’s” heavily Auto-Tuned title track — Usher’s star power has been eclipsed by his 16-year-old protege, Justin Bieber, whose career Usher played a major role in launching.
“I’m very proud. I’m very, very proud of the success that we’ve had,” Usher, speaking during a recent national teleconference, said of his work with Bieber.
“The type of foundation we’ve developed, that all artists strive for — we want some type of substance there, you know, to continue to grow. I’m invested in it. The integrity of what I recognized in him as an artist. He has not ever compromised, and he is an artist that continues to grow and that he as an artist is properly relating to his audience.
“I’m very proud though, man. You know, I think that with a new wave of entertainers that are up and coming, and I just wanted to make a contribution that I felt like would to definitely help to grow Bieb’s business.”
Of course, Usher (himself a former teen-pop star of sorts) has had a lot on his mind besides Bieber these past few years.
Born Usher Raymond IV, the Texas native got married in 2007 to Tameka Foster. Their son, Usher Raymond V, was born later that year and a second son, Naviyd, was born in 2008. Usher and his wife divorced in 2009.
His marriage and divorce received intense scrutiny from the media and from myriad fans online. Ditto his decision to fire his mother as his personal manager. Many fans that weighed in, almost nonstop, seemed angry he had dared to marry an “older woman,” let alone one with several kids from a previous marriage.
“Well, there really is no privacy,” Usher said. “I always tell my fans believe half of what you see and none of what you hear, until you hear it from me.”
“Raymond v. Raymond” was billed as an intensely personal “tell-all” work about the dissolution of Usher’s marriage. But apart from a few token songs of mild reflection, he sounds happier to celebrate his once-again single status and lover-man mystique than to engage in the naked introspection that inspired such classic breakup albums as Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear,” Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks” and Beck’s “Sea Change.”
Then again, maybe introspection is passe. On his song “Lil Freak,” which features current R&B and hip-hop sensation Nicki Minaj, Usher remedies his post-marriage blues with a tryst, with two women who are into each other at least as much as they are into him. The “Vs.” album is even more threadbare.
The big question, then: Can Usher, who earlier in his career seemed like a strong candidate to partly fill the void left by Michael Jackson, still bring it on stage? Usher, not surprisingly, is confident he can still bring it on stage, with more dancing and high-tech razzle-dazzle than ever.
“This is a more technical show than my normal show, in terms of the staging,” Usher said during his recent teleconference.
“While choreography has always been, you know, the main way — the best way for me to articulate myself on stage — there is a lot of screen content, and also a few remarkable moments that I’ve built into the show … A lot of time and technical practice has gone into it. So expect a show that’s above and beyond what you normally would get from Usher.
“You know, live performance has always been my thing. It’s my purpose to master and capture the moment every time I have you connected. For me, you know, I wanted to make sure that it was state of the art …
“I wanted to make sure that, in comparison to the other shows that are going on around the world, you get the type of experience that leaves you saying ‘OMG’.”
And who, exactly is Usher’s target audience? The best answer might well be another question: Who isn’t?
“These concerts are welcoming to all families, all men and women, everybody. I want to say this about my music and about my musical experience, period … Now as I look back over my full catalog of music, I feel like I’m at that point where everybody in the family can come to my show. Everybody in the family can come to this show and enjoy something.”
As for his concert repertoire, Usher is aiming to appeal to as many tastes as possible.
“You know, I think some songs are a lot more intimate and R&B, some songs are very much pop and New Age,” he said. “Some songs are very specific for the club. Some songs are every specific for the experience. So everybody gets something.
“The younger audience, they get a chance to hear some of my classic music, you know. For the older audience, they get a chance to hear and feel something they might not necessarily would go for. My point is to artistically take people on a journey they might not otherwise be able to experience, meaning the dance (component) and everything that I’ve created that has been planned for this tour.
“You know, a lot of it is pulled from all over the world, different styles of dance. The musical experience, it pulls from all over the world. The visual experience I pulled from a lot of things that I’ve seen in my inspiration of videos and also my inspirations for directors. So, I pulled all that stuff together to give people this ultimate, ‘OMG’ experience.”
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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