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By NEKESA MUMBI MOODY, AP Music Writer NEW YORK – For more than a decade, Usher’s music has been the soundtrack to a player’s lifestyle. From singing about casual sex when he was just 15 to detailing the devastating details of an affair on his blockbuster CD “Confessions,” his songs have been filled with sex, passion, romance, partying, and yes, sometimes love – but young love, new love, fleeting love. Lyrics about commitment and enduring relationships were hard to find on his platinum-plus albums. Until now. Sure, the first single off his new album may talk about “Love in This Club.” But Usher is newly married and the father of a 7-month-old son. He has moved on from the party scene to the family life, and his new sense of responsibility has spilled over into his music on “Here I Stand,” which comes out on Tuesday.
“When I started off writing this album, I wasn’t married. I wasn’t engaged, I didn’t have a child,” says Usher, 29. “I wanted to make substance-filled records that are off the beaten path from what is typical. Trends die. Love lives on.
“I wrote about so many tumultuous relationships and issues that I’ve had in relationships and people reacting to it. Let me change the stakes. Let me talk about the pleasures of a relationship.”
For some fans, Usher’s relationship has been hard to accept. He’s had a string of public romances, most notably his three-year relationship with Chilli from TLC. But his connection with his stylist Tameka Foster lit up the blogosphere with negative feedback.
Maybe it was their age difference (at age 37, she’s eight years older), or the fact that Foster had been married before and has three children. When the two wed last year, and she later gave birth to their son, Usher Raymond V, there were plenty of good wishes but not universal joy.
“People are so attracted to drama. That’s easier to take than a story of righteousness,” says Usher, dressed in all denim, looking intense as he sits backstage between rehearsals for his recent appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’m a guy that decided to marry a woman – a black woman – that wasn’t perfect, that had flaws, that through all in all, she’s been successful on her own. … and that’s a bad thing. I decided to marry this woman, then I decide to be a father to my child,” he says with a laugh. “And that’s a bad thing. It’s not like I got caught with a gram of coke in my car or speeding or was caught for murder, so why would I be ridiculed, that’s why I don’t understand – that’s the part that is mind boggling. Why would I be ridiculed for that, even a year later.”
There was also more gossip fodder when Usher dropped his mom-ager, Johnetta Patton, as his manager and replaced her with Benny Medina, who has guided the careers of Diddy, Will Smith and Mariah Carey. Some suggested that Foster pushed Usher’s mom out, but he denies that – or that he “left” his mother at all (she still lives nearby his house in Atlanta).
“Me and my mother are still in a good place have always been but we had our time as it relates to manager and artist, and now it’s more important to be mother and son,” he says strongly. “That matters to me. I took charge of my life and my situation and I dictated to my mother and the world this is what I’m going to do. It’s called taking charge, it’s called being a man – it’s called manning up. It’s called being RESPONSIBLE … And it ain’t bad. It’s a good thing.”
“Big Jon” Platt, a top music publishing executive who has known Usher since he was a 17-year-old heartthrob, says any backlash is due to people not ready to see him grow up.
“That’s the problem with the public in general is that they still want to hold on to Usher as this young guy,” says Platt, the West Coast Creative/Head of Urban U.S., EMI Music Publishing. “Sometimes people want to hold on to the image they have of you.”
Though he may still have a baby face and youthful appeal (his splits and dance moves during “SNL” rehearsals could quiet the “Chris Brown is the next Usher” talk), Usher is clearly ready to break free from his old reputation. His new CD, “Here I Stand,” isn’t all about family and relationships – there’s the will.i.am come-on song “What’s Your Name” and the bedroom burner “Trading Places” – but it’s highlighted by songs that stress fidelity, lifelong ties and fatherhood. It’s the antithesis of the Grammy-winning “Confessions,” which sold nine million albums fueled by the party smash “Yeah” and “Burn,” about letting go of a relationship.
Now, on the new track “Prayer For You,” Usher croons about his newborn son, whose cries open the song. “His Mistakes” warn a man tempted to commit adultery. And “Best Thing” featuring Jay-Z has the former bachelors celebrating the love of one woman.
“I almost hate the words ‘grow up’ because it makes it seem like he wasn’t grown up before,” says Platt. “(But) he’s just a man whose grown before our eyes … he’s just more serious now.”
Given that much of Usher’s persona was that of a sex symbol – a single sex symbol – becoming a family man not only in real life but on record could be seen as a risk. But Usher, who co-wrote all the songs on the CD, believes his fans are ready to grow up along with him.
“The fans that were 21 when I was 21 are now 29, so I’m speaking for them as well. I’m speaking to a more mature audience but also not alienating my younger fans,” says Usher. “There’s something for everybody on this record but I definitely do feel that a more mature audience is going to respect this album and I think that a younger demographic is going to enjoy it just as much.”
Usher had a hit with R. Kelly last year with “Same Girl,” but otherwise has been largely absent from the charts since the white-hot “Confessions” – one of the best selling records of this decade – finally cooled down in 2005. He hasn’t been out of the spotlight, though. Usher’s done Broadway, with a stint playing Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” launched his own fragrance lines, is part owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has his charity work and has been campaigning for Barack Obama for president (the senator recently appointed him a campaign ambassador).
In today’s fickle music market, even a year away from the charts can seem like an eternity. But Usher says he isn’t worried about how he’ll be received, – and as “Love in This Club” proved, has little reason to be. The CD’s first single (with Young Jeezy) shot to No. 1 upon its release a few weeks ago and remains a top-five hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Me and this No. 1? We’ve got a love thing,” Usher said. “We always meet up, no matter how many years I’m away, we always make it back to each other.”