One of the most successful pop-R&B artists of the late 20th century and the early 21st century, Usher debuted during the mid-’90s as a fresh-faced teenager. As part of the thriving LaFace label roster, he made an instant impact in R&B’s post-new jack swing era. He successfully rode mainstream songwriting and production trends across three decades and peaked artistically and commercially during the mid-2000s, when his landmark fourth album, Confessions, outshone all of its competitors. It generated four straight number one pop hits and joined the ranks of Thriller, Whitney Houston, and CrazySexyCool by achieving diamond platinum status — over ten million copies sold in the U.S. More than anyone else, as a singer, songwriter, producer, dancer, and all-around entertainer, Usher was the successor to Michael Jackson.
Born Usher Terry Raymond IV in Dallas, Texas, Usher spent much of his childhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee and eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia for the sake of his budding music career. After a LaFace A&R representative spotted him on Star Search, his career took off. The 14-year-old auditioned for LaFace co-founder L.A. Reid, who signed the gospel choir boy to a recording contract. In 1994, Usher released his debut album of the same name, which featured co-executive producer Sean “Puffy” Combs. The first single, “Think of You,” gained Usher wide recognition and reached gold status. From that initial exposure, Usher was approached to do other projects. In 1995, he recorded a national holiday jingle for Coca-Cola. He also joined several top male R&B vocalists to form Black Men United for the single “You Will Know,” featured on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack. He also teamed with teen singing sensation Monica for a remake of Latimore’s “Let’s Straighten It Out.”
After graduating from high school, Usher released his sophomore album, My Way, in 1997. In an attempt to display his maturity and songwriting abilities, he co-wrote six of the nine songs and enlisted the help of producers Jermaine Dupri, Babyface, and, again, Combs. The album’s first single, “You Make Me Wanna,” reestablished Usher as one of R&B’s hottest artists, and also made him a crossover sensation. It topped Billboard’s R&B chart for 11 weeks, hit number two on the Hot 100, and eventually went double platinum. Both of the follow-up singles, “Nice & Slow” and “My Way,” also went platinum; the former stayed at number one on the R&B chart for eight weeks and became his first number one pop single. In the meantime, Usher launched an acting career, appearing in the 1998 horror spoof The Faculty and the 1999 urban high-school drama Light It Up.
To tide fans over until his next studio release, Usher issued a concert recording titled simply Live in 1999. He returned on the Arista label with his third proper album, 8701, in 2001, and progressed from a teen pop star to a sultry R&B singer. Three years later, Arista released the single “Yeah!” Produced by Lil Jon and guesting Ludacris, the addictive, lightly crunk cut fast became a club favorite, and then it went global — a number one pop hit in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and several other territories. Confessions, the parent album, was Usher’s most mature and diverse work. It won a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album, while “Yeah!” took home the award for Best Rapped/Sung Collaboration. He starred in 2005’s In the Mix and returned in 2008 with Here I Stand, an album that topped the Billboard 200 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts but inevitably failed to do as well as what preceded it.
Raymond v Raymond, inspired in part by the end of Usher’s marriage, was released in 2010 as three of its songs were climbing the charts. Its buzz single, “Papers,” had already topped the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart. An EP titled Versus followed later in the year. Led by another Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart-topper, “Climax” (co-produced by Diplo), Looking 4 Myself was issued in 2012, driven by the Top Ten single “Scream,” and it became Usher’s fourth number one album.
A year later, he began a stint as a coach for the NBC talent show The Voice. His contestant, Josh Kaufman, would go on to win season six of the competition in May 2014. Meanwhile, Usher released singles throughout the year, including “Good Kisser,” “She Came to Give It to You,” and “I Don’t Mind,” the last of which — featuring Juicy J — peaked just outside the Top Ten of the Hot 100. These tracks were supposed to be included on his then-titled album, UR. Despite an international tour and a new single “Chains” (which featured Nas and Bibi Bourelly), the album’s release was continually delayed.
In 2016, Usher starred as Sugar Ray Leonard in the movie Hands of Stone. The song “Champions” (with Ruben Blades) was included on the film’s soundtrack. It became one of four singles — along with “Missin’ U,” “Crash,” and “No Limit” featuring Young Thug — released in preparation for his eighth album, Hard II Love, which appeared in September 2016. ~ Lynda Lane & Andy Kellman