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Rewind with Usher

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Facts about Usher: His debut album was released in 1994. Since then, he has won 17 Billboard Music Awards, nine ASCAP awards, eight Soul Train Music Awards and eight Grammy Awards. He is an accomplished film, television and stage actor. He has been honored for his philanthropy, and his organization, New Look Foundation, has helped and mentored thousands of young people worldwide. He's also coaching again on this season of NBC's The Voice.

In 2001, Usher released his third album, 8701, which debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 4 and was quickly certified multi-platinum. Here's a look back.

Your new album, 8701, is triple-platinum, while its predecessor [1997's My Way] sold 7 million copies. Are you in competition with yourself?

That's a good position to be in, if indeed that's what it is, and I take the challenge. It means I've got to work as hard and use the relationships I made on the last album to go a little further. What I'm able to do now is maneuver my career.

You're credited as executive producer. What does that mean? Are you behind the board?

It's what I'm capable of doing as overseer of my album, coordinator, producer and visionary. It's a title that gives you credentials and the ability to be a negotiator. I turn the actual production over to the engineer, but I can articulate what I'm looking for. I find producers and artists that I like, test the chemistry, and if it's wrong, I move on, but if it's right, I know we've got a great thing.

What really broke your career? Good songs, of course, but a lot of people release a good song and are never heard from again.

The main thing is being consistent. This is my second successful album. I'm a single artist instead of a group when there are a lot of groups out there, and my track record for good songs helps. Again, it's credentials.

At 23, you have a good grip on the business and a sense of self. When did you come into your own?

About a year ago, when I realized that a lot of people were taking responsibility for what I'm naturally able to do. I've been in this business for so long [Usher was signed to LaFace Records in 1993], I've been down a lot of rocky roads, and now I'm applying the things I went through and turning them into something good. Why shouldn't I benefit? Why should I sell 7 million albums and get nothing for myself? Before, I relied solely on my producers' opinions. Now it's a collaboration. It's not about me; it's about us. That's why my production and record companies are called US.

Was it hard to be taken seriously when you were so young?

It would appear that way, but L.A. [Reid — then co-founder of LaFace; now chairman and CEO of Epic Records] had a belief in me that allowed him to invest money and have me learn at a fast pace. This industry is brutal. You win or you lose, and at one time I felt a loss internally because I thought I would never sing again. I had problems with my voice, and people who were deeply enthused about me had to work on other things, other priorities. My mother helped me get through it with determination, prayer, patience, and the realization that good things come to those who wait. I understand that now, but you can't tell that to a 14-year-old.

LaFace Records signed you nine years ago. Was it easier to get a deal then than it would be today? How have things changed since they moved to New York?

If I were 14 now, someone would have to bring me to L.A. and hope he wasn't jaded by the business, because then the creativity won't come through. When you're in a creative place, you make decisions differently than when it's about money, budgets and time. When L.A. signed me, he made me a priority so early in his own career that he is now a part of the team, so it would be crazy for him not to stand beside an artist that he built from scratch. Now he handles the business end, when before we had a purely creative relationship. I won't lie to you — it's different. I can't pick up the phone and call him every day, but when I call, he always calls me back.

In addition to recording and touring, you're acting, and running your own label and production companies. Do you ever worry that you're spreading yourself too thin?

Not really. This is my life; it's what I was born to do. Having my own companies sort of evolved through my albums. While I was working, I ran into a Latina artist [Melinda Santiago] who struck my interest. I told her that if I ever had a label, I would have an artist like her. When the opportunity came about, we agreed that I would help her career. I must make sure I have the time to make it as personal as my records, because a record can take a lot of time, depending on what you want out of it. It's a challenge for me. I want to make legendary music, not music just for the times. You have to give life a chance to show you what's real. Certain circumstances motivate you to write certain lyrics, certain music. That's why I take my time making albums.

You worked with top producers on this album: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, The Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, Babyface, She'kespere and others. When so many people are involved, how do you maintain the continuity?

It's almost like wearing different outfits on different occasions. It gives you a variety of sounds and it's up to you to center yourself and find specific melodies. No matter how many records Marvin Gaye or Donny Hathaway made, it was always their sound, their tone. No matter how many videos Michael Jackson makes, he always has his own dance. Working with different people, you find yourself and the options to either expand what you have or stick to what you've got. I was fortunate that such great producers wanted to work with me. I have my own studio in Atlanta, but at that time I preferred to record at their studios so they'd be comfortable and at ease and come back every day with the same energy, because it takes time to get a groove. If you go to a jazz club and they change the band, the entire atmosphere changes and they lose their audience. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to disturb the groove.

Success has brought you so much: the house, cars, studio, 1,000 pairs of shoes, a butler, a cook. Are there days when you look around and think, What am I doing with 1,000 pairs of shoes when there are people who have no shoes and are sleeping under bridges?

It is very important for me to give back for what I have received. I take part in any charitable events I can. I started the New Look Foundation to help children who are less fortunate. Many of those shoes have gone to the Salvation Army and other charitable drop-offs, as have my clothes. I am able to have a great perspective of what life can offer. I participate with Make A Wish and work with terminally ill children. I hope to expand what we do. Most foundations target one purpose. I want to focus on the issues at hand. Kids are very, very important to me. There are a lot of kids in Atlanta who are in the juvenile system, in the foster system. I hold events so they can come to a place where there is love and care. We are looking at establishing a hotline for parents who need advice. As a child, if I had not had a responsible adult to lead me in the right direction, I would have probably failed and fallen victim to peer pressure. Somebody has to look out for and protect our kids, and I feel blessed to be a blessing to someone else.

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