Usher aims ever higher

USA Today

I’m the greatest of my time,” Usher intones playfully. “I’m a living legend. I’m the prettiest. I don’t care what nobody says. I’m a modern-day Muhammad Ali, and I’ll knock you out.”

The singer is just kidding around, but the self-confidence in the words is not that far off the mark. His fluid dance moves have landed him onstage beside both Janet and Michael Jackson, and when Beyonce needed a partner for her Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse-inspired video for “Naughty Girl,” Usher was her man.

He has had the biggest record on the radio for five straight weeks with “Yeah!” His new album, “Confessions”, now in stores, is expected to be one of the year’s strongest opening-week sellers.

When he talks about his role models, such expected names as Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson come up, but so do Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.

“I’m not a follower, but I do follow greatness,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with recognising greatness from the past and mimicking it to create something great for the future.”

With each album, Usher has made a discernible leap forward in maturity and creativity, something his mother and manager, Jonetta Patton, attributes to the amount of time he dedicates between projects to working on his music. When his albums and tours run their course, he maintains a low profile.

“I think that adds to the anticipation each time,” Patton says. “I was telling him the other day, you’ve been in this business 13 years, and there’s so much excitement with you coming back because you’re not all over the place.”

“My management team is working to put me in front of as many people as I possibly can.” Then, falling back into mock-Ali mode, he adds, “And when I’m in front of those people, I’m telling you, I’m going to shock you. I’m going to shake up the world.”

“We are going to brand everything,” he says. “You can’t let your money be all about record sales because artists don’t make money off of records these days. And I want to be able to tour, but do it at my leisure and not because that’s my only means of compensation.”

It has been a long process for the star, who started out singing as a youngster at St Elmo’s Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where his mother was choir director. They moved to Atlanta in 1993, and he was signed to LaFace Records by Reid after the then-13-year-old was spotted at a local Star Search competition. A year later, Combs produced his self-titled debut, and he had a top 10 single with the club jam “Think of You.” 1997’s “My Way” sold more than 4 million copies, and 2001’s “8701” was even bigger.

Now comes ‘Confessions’, the most personal and revealing record he’s ever done. While it doesn’t completely clean out his closet, it does crack it open a bit.

He adds that the songs’ situations are based on things he’s gone through, but they shouldn’t be taken too literally. “I’m not baring my soul completely, but wanted to make it as real as possible.”

Usher says that he is “officially single” when asked about Thomas. And publicist Chris Chambers of Arista Records says emphatically that “there is no love child. The song is taken from life stories from people around him and used in the context of ‘Confessions’.’’

“I’m not in a rush,” he says. “Normally, when you get what you deserve, your career is over shortly after. If you don’t win a Grammy, it’s not the end of the world. But this year, I hope to clean up in all the different award categories. I’ll put it out there and say this will be the biggest year of my career.”