The Guide arrives at the rear of Capital FM‘s Leicester Square HQ. We will spend today with Usher. It shouldn’t really seem this exciting when one of the most successful recording artists in US pop history makes a brilliant record. But with most of modern pop’s best voices – Usher’s included – having been sucked into David Guetta’s clubLOL black hole, the across-the-board jubilation that has met Usher’s dark, Diplo-produced, 21st-century R&B slow jam Climax seems to have set the stage for one of the most well-executed comebacks of recent years. Today, he will promote his forthcoming album to London and beyond. We meet Usher’s publicist and radio plugger at Capital’s “tradesman’s entrance”, situated, like much of popular culture, between an art shop and a Yates’ Wine Lodge.
News comes through that the Ushermobile is on its way. A large metal door rolls up in anticipation and it is your correspondent’s job to stand underneath it to prevent the door lowering until Usher is inside. It is a bit like taking a bullet for the president. Suddenly a black SUV appears, drives past us through the entrance and down into Capital’s car park. Downstairs, Usher steps out of his car. He is smiling, as you probably would do if you were Usher. He’s dressed all in black, though the outfit is made marginally less mundane by LOADS OF DIAMOND JEWELLERY.
We get into a lift with Usher, on our way up to join Capital breakfast hosts Dave Berry and Lisa Snowdon. Almost immediately, two things happen. Firstly, Usher begins talking about art. He visited Tate Modern last night. Secondly, a man starts to comb Usher’s beard. “It’s good having someone follow you all day to brush your beard,” Usher notes with a smile. Fascinatingly he is making light of it because he senses that we find it unusual – particularly as we are on our way to a radio interview – yet he is also happy for it to continue. Perhaps he really thinks that we, without our own personal beard comber, are the ones behaving strangely.
During an on-air chat, Climax is providing Usher, Dave and Lisa with some noteworthy single entendres. “I’m happy you like my climax,” Usher says. “I can’t get enough of your climax,” Lisa Snowdon says. Usher then explains – for what feels like it might be the first time of many – that Climax is not actually about The Sex after all.
Usher announces that if he were a dog, he would have his “nose in everything”.
Between interviews with other radio shows in the same building, we say to Usher that while Climax might not be about sex, bits of the album definitely are. He looks sceptical. Scream, we say, is basically a song about what it’s like to be fucked by Usher. “I try to be eloquent,” he says. “I try to be intelligent in the way I approach speaking about sex. I don’t want you to tell them [he means you, readers] “that my album is a sexual album. Show Me is about a night of excellent fun at a club. Numb with Swedish House Mafia is about having no fear.”
Some of it is quite sexual, we say.
“It’s not too sexual for me!” he laughs. “Maybe it’s too sexual for you …”
Usher wants to talk about yesterday evening’s trip to the Tate Modern to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, but instead is being asked by a DJ to name as many types of nut as he can in 60 seconds. “Walnuts,” he begins. “Peanuts, soya nuts, my nuts.”
Rich, Capital’s evening host, is telling Usher how good Climax is. When you heard it back, Rich asks, were you surprised by how good it was? “No,” says Usher. “I wasn’t really.”
Interviews over, Usher hangs around by the bins in the Capital basement. We jump in the car, on our way to more radio interviews. We talk about Usher’s decision to work with Diplo.
“It was a risk,” he modestly accepts. “But hey man, if you take no risk, you stand to gain nothing in life.” And he’s off: “Dare to be different. I don’t look like you, I don’t walk like you, I don’t dance like you, I don’t move like you or talk like you. That doesn’t make me odd, that makes me who I am. I want people to feel that essence of growth.” He talks very persuasively. He talks, a lot, as if his thoughts are grand theories, with Usher the centre of attention at some sort of pop salon. “This album is very consistent in the aspect of being eclectic,” he muses.
We’re in a basement in Soho. The plan is that Usher will do a load of regional radio interviews down the line. Some stations will pretend he’s in the studio with them, while others will be more honest, but the effect will be similar to a national radio tour, except without leaving the studio.
It has quickly become clear that most of these interviews are based on research that has extended no further than Usher’s Wikipedia entry.
Usher seems not to understand why people are so interested in the number of toilets he has in his house. “Have fun with it,” he says of this information. “I COULD SHIT ALL DAY!”
‘What was beautiful and credible and pristine yesterday gets aged, dirty and not as brilliant in the future’
We’re back in the Ushermobile. Usher is asleep.
Kensington High Street, RCA HQ. The recently appointed president of Usher’s label is meeting his new charge for the first time since taking over. Through his office’s glass walls we can see arms being waved around and lots of serious nodding.
We head to Scott’s in Mayfair for lunch. Usher is on a ludicrously restrictive diet to help him get in shape for a top-secret film role, although this diet does permit him to eat a massive pile of smoked salmon and caviar, so he seems to be just about coping. We decide to pump him for information about this mystery film role. “I’m playing Sugar Ray Leonard,” he announces, immediately, which doesn’t really stretch our interrogative muscles too far.
After lunch, we think about something Usher mentioned earlier regarding protegee Justin Bieber, who was launched in 2008 the guidance of Usher and manager Scooter Braun. Today Usher’s point had been that there is a point in a pop star’s career “when the screams die down”. Fourteen years, six multi-platinum albums, 45 singles and 66m worldwide sales since Usher’s debut single U Make Me Wanna was a worldwide No 1, does Usher ever fear this moment?
“It’s not a fear,” he says, adopting an extreme seriousface. “It’s a reality. You can’t fear what you realistically know is coming.” He seems pleased with this concept. “What was beautiful and credible and pristine yesterday gets aged, dirty and not as brilliant in the future. I’ve always admired or had admiration for aged things. If you go to my home, it’s very eclectic and European. Some things are very old, some things are very new. I love art, because it preserves its value.”
“For the fan who was introduced to an artist at a very young age – the Beatles, Usher, Justin Bieber – there’s a fanatic essence of what that was because of who that person was, but also who that person is,” he says. “And as they grow that fan will become a little bit more mature. They’ll still get excited, but they might not scream. My point is that the screams could potentially stop, but it’s up to you to determine how long the screams last.”
On our way to today’s final destination, we pull up outside Sister Ray on Berwick Street. The record shop is almost deserted, and Usher heads downstairs and straight to the bonkers techno section. His eyes light up when he spies a 12-inch Photek picture disc (obviously) which he gives a spin on the demonstration decks. He likes what he hears, but doesn’t buy it – word has started to spread that he’s in here, paparazzi are gathering outside and kids are asking for photos. He poses for a few, but senses that the mood could turn, and we jump back in the car.
We’re at the posho members establishment, Dover Street’s Arts Club. Tomorrow, journalists and media fools will assemble here to hear his album for the first time. They’ll be expecting a lot of songs like Climax, but they’ll get some balls-out Euro-bangers, too. This afternoon, however, we order scones. There is some art on the wall – two framed photos smashed into each other. Usher looks at it for a while. “I don’t understand this shit,” he muses.
“I’ve been influenced in a way that makes me want to go against the grain,” he is explaining in relation to his album. “That was a little bit of my experience of Coachella. Three or four nights, going from stage to stage all day and all night.” Any standout acts? “I enjoyed Mumford & Sons,” he says. “I made good acquaintances with them.”
Our time is up. The Guide bids a farewell to our good acquaintance Usher. “ENJOY YOUR SCONES!” he bellows as he heads off in search of the Hockney exhibition. Usher pronounces “scone” as in “bone”, if you are wondering. But not in the sexual way, obviously.