We had a chance to catch up with iconic R&B legend Usher upon the 25th Anniversary of his sophomore album “My Way”. During our interview, we had a chance to speak to him about the creation of the album, how it was a foundation for the success that would follow, the bond he formed with Jermiane Dupri while working on the album, his current Las Vegas Residency, plans for new music, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: For a long time it seems like you’ve been someone who’s in the moment and looking to the future. Now with the celebration of the 25th anniversary of your “My Way” album, it seems like you’re also looking back to the past. Talk about the mind state you’re in as you prepare to release his documentary.
Usher: I think it was just as much a journey for me as it was for the people who are going to watch it. The history is of my past. Being able to just celebrate 25 years and what the moment was made of and what it really was about. How it really speaks to when you decide to do something that is passion based or you’ve been pushed into a corner, and you come out swinging. That’s a moment of definition, that’s a moment that defines you as a person. I’m just eager to share this mini documentary with the world in lieu of naming my biggest Residency “My Way”. There is some parallel between how I’m doing things right now and the energy around what I’m doing. The fact that’s it’s very similar to the energy around “My Way” 25 years ago.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What are your lasting memories looking back on creating that album?
Usher: That I didn’t give up. I’m really happy that I had the right support and the people who worked on the videos with me, worked on the wardrobes, the people who worked on the songs, the people who worked on the visuals and the ideas. That would then create some type of expectation to live up to. It’s also a gift and a curse. Once you have this expectation you have this feeling that you need to overshoot as you create going forward. For me this was a project that wasn’t about expectation other than to make something raw and authentic and incredible. I think in between the release of this album and then many albums after it, it created the expectation to be better than. While I may have been different on “8701” or “Confessions” or any others that would come, I don’t think that the comparison is right. The first success is always the hardest one. The first time that you manage to make something that is unique and authentic to who you are, that’s really the hardest thing to ever do.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was cool about this album was you go to work with Babyface. You were signed to his label LaFace. What was it like working with him on “Bedtime” and other songs?
Usher: I just wanted to impress him. I wanted to appreciate and give me my props as a vocalist. I did feel a little bit like he didn’t know me. We didn’t spend a lot of time together. We weren’t friends in that way. When I was signed, I was signed under the guise of LA Reid’s brother Brian Reid. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Babyface. I didn’t know if he liked me or was rooting for me. I just wanted to impress him.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the bond you formed with Jermaine Dupri during the creation of this album and how it’s still lasted to this day.
Usher: Absolutely. It’s great that I did do that because it became a long term relationship that far exceeds this music. He’s my brother. I’m happy I could be a part of my legacy and he be a part of helping me define mine.
YouKnowIGotSoul: “My Way” really set the foundation for the success you would have on the albums to follow. We’ve talked to producers like Tim & Bob and Dallas Austin who helped in your early creative process. What do you think were the key elements that made this such a success?
Usher: I think it was really up to LA to put me around people who would spend the time and be selfless enough to help me tell my story. I think that maybe I just had more time with Jermaine than I did with Tim & Bob. It’s funny because the first version of “My Way” was created between myself and Tim & Bob. I just had this idea of a song called “My Way”. We wrote around it and I went after it, but then I wasn’t resolved, I thought I had to take another stab at it. So I went to JD and told him I really wanted to write this song “My Way”. So we go after it, I play him some of the ideas that I had been working on with other people. I wanted it to have a little arrogance to it. To show it’s my time to do it my way. JD said let’s make it about a girl and a guy, that you’re talking to his girl, and she wants to do it your way. I thought that was a brilliant approach. JD always manages to find the best way to craft the ideas. We are like poets working together on an incredible piece. Sometimes the most prolific words have been written by somebody else, but delivered by a different person. Whether it was the address to the union or speeches that we sometimes celebrate in our lives. These words mean something, these melodies they mean something more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Your debut album wasn’t as big of a commercial success as some of your later albums. What did this cause your mindset to be when coming into the “My Way” album, was there any added pressure?
Usher: If you live long enough, what you create will make its way back and you’ll have a resurgence. This is something that Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis taught me. Don’t worry about it. What is an Usher song? A song that Usher sings. That’s what Terry Lewis used to tell me. The fact that songs resurge in time, is a result of the work that you put in. As long as it’s authentic and real, people feel something from it, and they think you are really tied to it, then it doesn’t matter. For me, it was just about establishing myself as a writer, being true and honest about who I was as an artist and putting me in it so that I felt it was my art interpreted. The idea of how you do that, is a really hard thing. Most of the time you are trying to make something successful or trying to crate something people will really celebrate. You are thinking in those ways. Really the truth is, if you just really think about making something that is real, in the moment, speaks to the culture, about where you were at that time in life, more than likely other people are either experiencing the same thing or going through the same emotions or are in the same vibe going on in those years. So the sound becomes fitted to the times. No different than Disco or R&B when it was Doo Wop. Everybody was doing that and everybody followed that. When Hip Hop and R&B began to come together, it was like this merge of cadences that made you feel emotion with the coolness of Hip Hop that was a bit rebellious. So we managed to create new ideas around R&B songs. I feel like “Nice & Slow” was the new ballad. This is what a ballad is this time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What’s been the biggest surprise for you during this Las Vegas Residency?
Usher: The love and appreciation for the music. That’s been the biggest surprise. Not that I’m shocked. But when you decide to give them this incredible energy and work up a sweat, obviously people should react to it. But a big surprise really came just as a result of where people were period. Not even because of us putting together a show in Las Vegas, but you have to remember we were in the middle of a pandemic before this “My Way” Residency. I was shocked and up for the task that gave people a reason to come back again. It just so happens it falls on the 25th Anniversary of the “My Way” album. I decided to name the residency after that because I just feel renewed, I feel like a new surge of energy and inspiration. I am shocked and excited about the way people are showing up the way they are and it’s sold out and people are enjoying those older songs. I’m not even playing new songs. I’m literally pushing my classic records and able to introduce my older fans to the emotions and feelings they had at that time, and maybe even intrigue younger people to check me out and be inspired by what I’m doing and have an experience they may not necessarily have ever had or felt.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How do you manage the expectations of some of your fans who want to see you working on getting a new album out or doing a more traditional tour, and just go ahead with the Residency?
Usher: You don’t. You keep yourself happy by doing what you love and I think as a result of that, people get where you are, or eventually hear about it and become interested in being where you are. This is a precursor to something incredible that’s going to be new music, a new energy that’s about the next chapter of my life. Before I do that, I would love to get you primed, so you can remember just what it is I do differently and what makes me unique. Then I can give you some new music after that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Fill us in on what we can expect with the new album.
Usher: There have been some conversations. We actually did a little listening thing where we allow people to hear a few songs. I think if anything we’ve decided to take a few nontraditional approaches to breaking records. I would have never thought Tiny Desk would have been the way I broke the remix version of “Nice & Slow” or “My Way”. I did these remixes that are reimagined version of those songs plus “You Make Me Wanna”. Again, just trying new nontraditional ways to do things like Tiny Desk or breaking records for the first time performing. You come to my concert, there’s a moment in the night where I actually do a new song. But I’m living in the moment. I put together an entire performance in Las Vegas that’s a celebration of all my songs from over the years. But who knows what’s going to happen night to night or who’s going to come out. Maybe during the month of October we’ll do tribute to some of the songs from “My Way”. I think the new energy and new music is all about creating something that feels fresh and doing things that are a bit out of the norm of how I’d normally do them.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Which is the better album, “8701” or “Confessions”?
Usher: As we are debating these two young gentleman, I think “My Way” gets jealous, my 25-year-old is a little mad at you for even asking! My 23-year-old and my 18-year-old, are asking what about them? I don’t know man, I don’t think there is any way to pick a favorite. I think all of them are uniquely intended for something. Right now I’m just celebrating “My Way”. “8701” is a classic album for R&B. “Confessions” was the moment for me to be realer than I’ve ever been on any album. That was the one that broke the mold and tore down any veil of being this perfect person. I just showed you what it was to really be a man in reflection of what his life has been and what choices he made and having to live with the dilemma of living with those. They are two different purposes based on where I was in my life and the level of maturity. I could not compare them.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Even “Here I Stand” deserves a mention in this conversation as well.
Usher: See that’s what I’m saying. When you’re making music, it’s best to just pay attention to where you are because even if people don’t get it, maybe there will be something that intrigues them to go and listen to your catalog, and maybe they find something that is really a great song. It’s applicable to where I am in life. I’ve used music as my diary. I go back to “My Way” and that’s where I was at 18. That’s some of what 18 year olds were dealing with. Same with “Confessions” and “8701”, that’s what I was going through and where I was. Then leading them to “Here I Stand” and “Raymond Vs Raymond”, these were all things that were really happening in my life. I was using my music as a diary.
Photo Credit: Bellamy Brewster