‘Yes, I did bump it, and yes it was soft. It was nice.”
Confessions from Usher, the hitmaking R&B smoothie who is talking up Nicki Minaj’s booty, as one does. The pair shared a stage during the recent telecast of the Video Music Awards, during a performance of his single She Came to Give it to You, which features an edgy rap cameo from Minaj. Usher was speaking earlier this week from his home in Atlanta, about his uncompleted and yet-to-be titled eighth studio album and about his first tour in three years. The UR Experience begins at Montreal’s Bell Centre, on Nov. 1, with dates in Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton to follow.
Anybody who watched the much tweeted upon VMAs may have forgotten about Usher’s booty-bumping shenanigans, in the wake of a broadcast that was given over to Beyoncé – “MTV, welcome to my world,” she announced – and her epic 16-minute medley of songs and legs. Usher’s own performance was more modest, and notable for his playing of a bass guitar.
“In the past, I’ve chosen to play the songs as you know them, as they were recorded,” says Usher. “This will be a different musical experience. My new show does call for me to play the bass or to pick up instruments.”
If Usher is set to embrace his bass-thumping inner Bootsy Collins, it marks a departure from his past worship of dancing-shoe singers. In 2010, on his last tour, the performer planted a pair of glittering kicks on the stage of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre and asked the audience if he had permission to wear them. It was a meant as a tribute to a King of Pop who had died less than a year earlier, but was construed as an audacious attempt to take his place.
“My plan was never to fill Michael Jackson’s shoes,” says Usher, who recalls the ACC moment as a “tender” one. “My plan has never been to fill James Brown’s shoes, or Jackie Wilson’s shoes or Frankie Lymon’s or any of the performers who sang and danced.
“Every bit of who I am is a product of where I’ve been able to stand,” continues the eight-time Grammy winner. “And when I say ‘stand,’ I mean standing on the shoulders of the people who paved the way before me.”
Of course, as one of the most successful record-selling artists of all time – he has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide – Usher has his own place in the lineage of pop stars, with the likes of Canadian superstars Justin Bieber and Drake being followers of his. At Drake’s OVO festival this summer, the Toronto-bred hip-hop maestro playfully challenged Usher to a dance-off. The contest was not close; Drake’s moves haven’t improved much since his excellent bar mitzvah motions he possessed as a child (as documented on a YouTube video and viral GIFs).
“He’s a lyricist,” says Usher, diplomatic about the showdown. “I don’t think I’ll battle him in the studio.”
In addition to recording his new album, Usher just completed his second season as a mentor on NBC’s talent show The Voice. As well, fans will see him portray boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in Hands of Stone, a biopic of Roberto Duran that is expected in theatres in 2015.
Usher is still working on his forthcoming album, though two singles from the LP have been released: Good Kisser, a risqué, stripped-down, salsa-fied R&B number, and the aforementioned She Came to Give it to You, which is more fun, produced by Pharrell Williams, the industry’s hat-happy hitmaker of the moment. It’s expected that the album will mark a return to Usher’s funky R&B roots, as opposed to the electronic explorations of 2012’s Looking 4 Myself.
The track She Came to Give it to You is a slice of slinky boogaloo that bears the upbeat party-starting spirit of Williams, who produced Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Lose Yourself to Dance and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines from a year ago, and had a massive hit on his own this summer with Happy.
“Me and Pharrell have a long-standing relationship,” says Usher. “He’s an advocate for real music, in a time when what is popular may be more simple and may be a little more young and may not feature instruments.”
Bumping booty and slapping the bass, this is Usher, at age 35, keeping it real. Asked if he is chasing hits by hooking up with Williams for She Came to Give it to You, he denies the insinuation. “No, my intentions were never to sound like anyone else, and it doesn’t feel like anyone else when I’m singing it. When we get together, the music just leads us.”
The UR Experience
All dates and venues below subject to change.
Air Canada Centre
The Palace of Auburn Hills
Quicken Loans Arena
New York, NY
Madison Square Garden
Wells Fargo Center
Atlantic City, NJ
St. Paul, MN
Xcel Energy Center
Los Angeles, CA
Las Vegas, NV
MGM Grand Garden Arena
San Jose, CA
SAP Center at San Jose
American Airlines Center
New Orleans, LA
Smoothie King Center
American Airlines Arena
Tampa Bay Times Forum