There Are Segways, and then there’s Usher Raymond IV‘s Segway. Usher’s scooter is a custom-built, gold-plated number with rims that look like they were lifted from Rick Ross‘ Maybach. It shines like Louis the XIV’s jewels as he zips through the hallways of the Philadelphia arena in which he’s rehearsing for an upcoming tour on a mid-October day. He’s wearing a cozy blue hoodie sweater (hood up) with a bejewel-ed plastic crown canted over it, like he just got back from partying with the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. As he joins his band — already shaking the empty arena with depth-charge blasts of bass-heavy funk — it’s hard to believe that anyone on the planet is having more fun.
And why not? During a two-decade career, Usher, 36, has sold nearly 24 million records in the United States alone, won eight Grammy Awards and, with 2004’s Confessions, scored the top-selling album of the 2000s. He has acted on Broadway (Chicago in 2006), starred in movies (he’ll play Sugar Ray Leonard opposite Robert De Niro in the forthcoming Hands of Stone) and coached two seasons on NBC’s The Voice, winning the second time around. He has a profitable perfume line and owns a small piece of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. (Just to be clear: Last season, Usher did not lobby his buddy LeBron James to come home, because that would be against NBA rules.) He has played the Super Bowl andMichael Jackson‘s funeral, and discovered Justin Bieber, provided him with the Usher playbook and set him loose upon the world.
Or, as Usher describes these things: “I get to see life through rose-colored glasses a lot of the time.” Then he laughs.
Usher lives in Atlanta with his sons Usher V, age 6, and Naviyd Ely, 5. He won primary custody of them when he divorced their mother, Tameka Foster, in 2009, after two years of marriage. When he’s not with them, he spends most of his time with his manager –girlfriend Grace Miguel, who, at 44, is eight years older than Usher and has been part of his career for three years. “I have an incredible partner and manager,” says Usher. “She has helped me through some of the hardest times in my life and my career.”
Usher often alludes to challenges to overcome, to crises that left him smarter and tougher. One is clearly his acrimonious relationship with Foster, who was Usher’s stylist before they married, and now stars on the VH1 reality show Atlanta Exes. (In October 2013, she sued for temporary full custody of their sons after the older child was caught in a pool drain. Usher’s aunt had been watching them, and the boy was unhurt. Usher kept custody.)
The hard times aren’t necessarily behind him, although they are perhaps of a less personal nature. There’s the existential issue, common to superstar artists in 2014, of making the transition from diamond-certified albums and near-annual No. 1 hits to struggling to even score gold records. Usher’s last album, 2012’s Looking 4 Myself, has sold 504,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan — 800,000 fewer than the one before it, 2010’s Raymond vs. Raymond. This fall, he was supposed to release his eighth album, but unexpectedly — and indefinitely — pushed the record back. “I just ain’t ready,” he explains. “Meaning I have more that I want to say and more that I want to do. My process is pretty different. L.A. Reid will tell you, it takes two albums to make one with Usher.”
It’s also possible that it’s just not Usher’s exact time anymore. The brand of male R&B he mastered isn’t exactly dominating — among the current top 20 singles, only Jeremih and Jason Derulo represent the Usher school. Drake, this decade’s reigning urban-radio loverman, isn’t even a singer, exactly, and makes the more traditional soul-based ballads that Usher is so great at seem even more old-fashioned. Then again, his biggest hits, from “Yeah!” to “Climax,” were so unconventional as to rewrite the language of pop. And he could well have a pocket full of them. (There’s a reason he has been in the studio with Skrillex and Diplo.) If Usher is worried about any of this, he’s not letting on. “Marketing is more important than it has ever been,” he says. “But I’m trying to tear the layers back and make it not so contrived. I think people just want entertainment. For certain artists it might be hard, but they don’t have the show.”
For now, Usher is taking a look back, delving deep into his own music and legend. For the last week, he has been camped out at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, prepping for the Nov. 1 launch of a world tour he’s calling the UR Experience — a celebration of “20 years of music and entertainment.” The arena’s hoops and hardwood are stowed away, swapped for a vast spaceship-ish stage, Metallica-ready P.A. system and an entire Guitar Center’s worth of shiny gear. The show will include elaborate choreography, megatons of pyro (stored behind a door marked with warnings not to smoke near it) and a killer 13-piece band that Usher refers to as his “funk-soul orchestra.”
“Most tours cater to the specific launch of a project — not this time,” he says emphatically. “The focus this time is the music. Going all the way back to the beginning.”
Earlier that day, just after 8 a.m., Usher wanders out of his dressing room, marked with a sign reading “Keyser Soze,” in search of breakfast. “I’m not a morning person, but I’ve become one as the result of having kids,” he says, settling down at a large round table in the crew catering room. “The morning is my private time to spend with my boys. The music industry doesn’t allow you to go to bed until five in the morning anyway. You have to just keep rolling.”
Usher speaks with a honeyed drawl, and has an easy, thoughtful vibe. He’s not exactly modest, tending to refer to himself in the third person and at one point comparing his music to Picasso’s Blue Period, but he’s not off-puttingly self-aggrandizing. He’s quick to give credit to his team and praise other artists. He has a deep knowledge of everything from classic soul and commercial rock to cool indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Sinkane. And partly because he has been the center of attention since he was a teenager, he has learned to wear his celebrity lightly.
When his breakfast arrives it’s just a couple of fried eggs and some bacon on a paper plate — a far cry from his vegan period a few years ago, when he traveled with a private chef. “That was opulent as hell,” he says. “It was just difficult to find people who can make vegan food taste great.”
If you couldn’t tell from his renowned music-video torso, not to mention dance skills mostly unrivaled in pop or R&B today, fitness and health are major areas of interest for Usher, who turned 36 earlier this month. (He jokingly bristles when his regimen comes up: “Are you asking that because of my birthday? You saying I’m getting old?”) In addition to boxing, Usher gets major cardio during rehearsals. “I sweat like a hooker in church when I’m onstage!”
Through the years he has tried pretty much every diet, from Paleo and Atkins to macrobiotics. “These days, I try to eat for my blood type when I’m not eating for the fat kid inside me,” he says. His blood type? “A doctor I know came up with it, but hasn’t released it yet, so I don’t want to tell you too much about it,” he explains. “But the idea is to eat the foods that work best for your body. For my blood type the meats I can eat are pork, beef and fish.”
Usher’s first fan was his mom, Jonetta Patton, who raised him with his stepfather, Terry Patton, and younger half-brother, James Lackey, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Usher never really knew his father, who died of a heart attack in 2008. Jonetta and Terry eventually divorced.) Convinced of his talent, Jonetta moved with her sons to Atlanta, where Usher was discovered and signed by Antonio “L.A.” Reid when he was 14.
Mentoring is a key part of Usher’s identity. It explains Bieber, the appeal to him of The Voice and the way he promotes within his organization (one of his choreographers used to be a dancer, for instance). “My mom always says, ‘You talk to everybody like they’re your kids,’ ” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I was born to be a dad.’ ”
Usher is realizing there are limits to his influence, especially when it comes to Bieber’s current behavior. “Our relationship is more man-to-man now,” he says. “He’s making his own decisions and it’s important to show support. I can say I’m not happy with all the choices my friend has made, but I’m supportive of him. I try my hardest to give as much positive reinforcement as I can. I’ll punch him in the f—ing chest when I need to, and give him a hug and kiss when I need to. It’s more than just mentoring. I love the kid.”
Usher’s own mentors include a Bad Boy-era Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs — Reid sent Usher to live with Combs in New York as a teenager, with the idea of toughening him up. “I’d say I earned my stripes in New York City,” says Usher. “My time with Puff, it gave me chutzpah.” As the youngest member of the extended Bad Boy family — they called him Baby Huey — Usher received, as he has openly discussed, an all-access pass to sex, drugs and some of hip-hop’s greatest stars. “I got to see performers like Tupac Shakur,” he says. “Redman, Method Man, Ice Cube. I got to perform onstage with The Notorious B.I.G., be in sessions with him and Craig Mack. I got to be part of the driving force that was Bad Boy, that was Puff.”
He has been thinking about his past a lot, in part because of the in-progress record. “Every album I’ve made represented a specific thing that was happening in my life,” he says. “And not until now did I think to look back at my life and take inspiration from my own music.” He has dozens of finished songs, including the tracks he has worked on with Skrillex and Diplo. Three singles have already debuted: “Good Kisser,” a No. 2 R&B hit; the retro-soul “She Came to Give It to You,” featuring Nicki Minaj; and the recently leaked “I Don’t Mind” — a bouncy, surprisingly tender ode to a stripper (“Shorty I don’t mind/If you dance on a pole/It don’t mean you’re a ho”) that has been racking up airplay on hip-hop stations across the country.
“Artists like Usher, you can’t pin them down,” says Diplo, who produced Usher’s 2012 top 20 hit, “Climax.” “That’s what leads them to be successful and have longevity. If Usher brings in 20 R&B writers, they’re going to do a certain kind of ‘Usher’ song. But Usher really wants to do something. Like, last album, he worked with Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun to write records like theirs, not ‘Usher’ records.”
Usher sees the UR Experience tour as a journey through his entire varied career, from his start as Michael Jackson-channeling teen sensation through his reign as R&B’s biggest star to his current place as one of pop’s elder statesman. “This will be one of my freest tours,” he says. “Shit, I’m singing love songs that went on to be baby-makers — and now the damn babies are in the audience.” He cracks up. “Talk about a family reunion.”
That afternoon, Usher wraps a dance rehearsal and joins the band to work out some rough parts. He glides over on his golden Segway, straps on a Fender Jazz Bass — playing it is a new interest — and kicks off a Prince-inspired funk jam. His part is a simple two-bar up-and-down groove, but it sounds good against the band’s sleek perfection.
The show’s “acoustic portion,” meanwhile, is especially important him. “There’s something magical about the Dave Matthews Band,” Usher says. “Even though [Dave Matthews is] playing for a huge audience, he’s bringing them into his own private space.” Accompanied by guitar, keyboard and percussion, Usher sings a soaring version of his 2010 ballad “There Goes My Baby.” He works closely with the three backup singers, drilling down on each harmony part. At one point the Rhodes keyboard tone gets a little hammy. Usher shoots the player a look and half-jokes, “Sounds like a baseball game, son!”
At 9:30 p.m., more than 12 hours after Usher arrived, the house lights snap off and a full concert run-through bursts into Technicolor life. For the first time all day we see the singer, who first appears silhouetted in classic Michael Jackson style, really dance. Even though it’s just a rehearsal, and he’s got whatever internal dial controls these things set at maybe 70 percent, it’s still a rush. Nine songs in, during the Confessions banger “Caught Up,” he spins twice, quickly, and sweat flies off his face in sheets.
Earlier that week, Usher celebrated his birthday in New York with Miguel. They wanted to see the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but when they got there, the museum was closed. “We asked if there was any way to open the museum for me, and ended up going through the whole thing with the curator explaining shit to me,” he says. “The theme of the show was luxury and degradation — it was pretty cool.”
He was especially interested in a period where the artist — now the celebrated creator of, among other things, enormous balloon animals in mirror-polished stainless steel — was rejected by the art establishment over sexually explicit work he made with an Italian porn star named Cicciolina, whom he married and divorced a year later. Shortly after their split, she gave birth to their son, Ludwig, and moved with the infant to Rome without Koons’ consent. The resulting custody battle raged on for more than a decade. “When the art industry comes against you, or any similar industry, they can really try to destroy your career,” says Usher. “Who are they to decide what is art? But then out of adversity comes something that creates not only strength but perspective.”
It’s hard to believe he’s not really talking about himself. Some fans, especially R&B traditionalists, haven’t been comfortable with what Usher considers the most important thing about his career — musical diversity. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist who was recognized for versatility, which is why I began to play with EDM, I began to play with pop, with rock, with Latin music,” he says. “Those things make up what I am as an -eclectic artist.”
Miguel, a former Island Def Jam executive, clearly supports Usher in pursuing his many directions. She’s an impressive presence herself: attractive, stylish, off-the-charts smart. “She’s someone who has been able to support and understand all of who I am,” he stresses. “Not just as a dancer or as a performer or as a singer, but as a humanitarian and a businessman and as a person.”
And she’s a great travel companion, opening up Usher to the world in a new way. “One thing that has come from having a great partner like Grace is being able to cherish the places that I’ve gone,” he says. “We see the monumental sites, go to the museums, eat in the best restaurants. I’m that guy now! In the past I’d do what I have to do and get on the bus to the next city. Life has become a vacation.”
”Crazy people are considered mad by the rest of the society only because their intelligence isn’t understood.”
Guy Oseary is unveiling the new Maverick: music’s biggest, most fiercely protected secret of the year, in which he’s rallying eight other top artist managers to partner with Live Nation and potentially reinvent a broken industry
Guy Oseary has proven, if nothing else, that he can keep a secret. From everyone — the music industry, his colleagues, his clients, even his wife — and for months now.
But the secret’s so important, so game-changing in its scope, that it has given him the rare occasion to be in Los Angeles long enough to accommodate a four-hour-plus block of meetings, keeping at bay a schedule filled with the global itineraries that come with managing superstar acts like Madonna, U2 and Alicia Keys — not to mention a tech fund with Ashton Kutcher and billionaire Ron Burkle, A-Grade Investments, that has more than 20 companies in its portfolio.
Today, Oseary, 42, has privately invited eight of his fellow music managers to his spacious, Spanish-style Beverly Hills mansion for a barbecue — and the public reveal, to an awaiting Billboard writer and camera crew, of their first-ever joint meeting as Maverick, Oseary and Live Nation’s most aggressive attempt to shake up an industry that has been plugging holes for years. None of the managers’ own employees even know why their bosses will be off the grid on this humid October Tuesday.
Joining Oseary are Laffitte Management’s Ron Laffitte, I Am Other’s Caron Veazey, Blueprint Group’s Gee Roberson and Cortez Bryant, Reign Deer’s Larry Rudolph and Adam Leber, Quest Management’s Scott Rodger and Spalding Entertainment’s Clarence Spalding. Collectively, they manage more than two dozen of the planet’s biggest artists. And as of Oct. 17, all nine will be joining their companies and rebranding them and their respective employees as “Maverick,” a name Oseary’s client Madonna gave the label she co-founded in 1992. (Oseary led A&R at the label — at age 22 — and became chairman/CEO before it folded in 2007.)
It’s a watershed moment for the management community, which has never been about hand-holding and problem-solving. Maverick is convening experts in pop, rock, R&B/hip-hop and country to make an unprecedented bet on the role of live events and technology in music’s future. (The managers’ clients are just now learning of the new formation.) Leber believes they’ll find opportunities “beyond music, such as tech or consumer goods.”
For Maverick’s principals, the deal couldn’t come at a better time. Music’s main money source is at its starkest, most irreversible crossroads in history: Record sales hit an all-time low for the Nielsen SoundScan era in August, and year-to-date unit sales have dropped 14 percent in 2014. And with record-label marketing budgets practically nonexistent these days, managers, whose standard fee remains 15 percent of earnings, have taken on chief marketing officer roles for their clients. Witness Apple’s $100 million ad push in support of U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence, which Oseary secured in place of an advance radio campaign. They’re also overseeing tours, as the live sector hits all-time highs — including this summer’s biggest stadium boom in 20 years.
The business incentives for Maverick’s nine founding partners, who will leverage their collective assets and skills to build business, are undeniable. They won’t detail the financial arrangements among the managers, Maverick and Live Nation, but their creative cross-pollination is already on display. In July, Oseary and Laffitte teamed up to co-manage Alicia Keys, Laffitte is connecting Oseary with radio consultants for the next U2 single, and Roberson is consulting on Madonna’s next album with Oseary.
And there are plans for expansion. SEFG founder Shawn Gee, manager of The Roots and Jill Scott, will bring extra R&B expertise to the group. “It’s not a closed-door event. We want other like-minded people,” says Oseary. His vast Rolodex is drawn from his separate Hollywood talent firm Untitled Entertainment, the must-attend Oscar parties he hosts at home and the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that populate his A-Grade portfolio. “He’s one of the most connected people I’ve ever met,” says Laffitte.
Oseary’s tech savvy may cement the new unit’s legacy. A-Grade is currently valued at $150 million, according to an industry source, and includes investments in Airbnb and Uber. Maverick’s members will have a direct pipeline into those resources. Rodger, for example, has key clients (Paul McCartney, Arcade Fire) who own their catalogs and are poised for big moves in areas including copyright administration (A-Grade has investments in Spotify and SoundCloud, while Oseary has a personal investment in digital-rights firm INDmusic.) And Leber has been working with Sherpa Ventures, whose founder Shervin Pishevar helped fund Uber, Warby Parker and Tumblr.
Although declining to comment, Live Nation Entertainment president/CEO Michael Rapino surely hopes all this will help the company reassert itself as a powerhouse following the departure of chairman Irving Azoff at the end of 2012. (He took lucrative touring clients the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac with him.) The Maverick managers, including leader Oseary, will report to Rapino and Live Nation’s Artist Nation management group, which houses more than 100 managers overseeing 250-plus acts like Maroon 5 and Kings of Leon. Oseary, Laffitte, Quest and Reign Deer already moved into Artist Nation’s spacious new headquarters in Beverly Hills earlier this year, while Blueprint will maintain its New York office and Spalding will stay in Nashville.
Despite the streamlining potential, the Mavericks don’t anticipate reductions in staff. Rodger says they’ll boost head count: “Hiring a radio promotions team for one artist’s album means they’re not busy nine months of the year. We always wanted to have digital marketing in-house, because what happens when an artist is off-cycle and you have to fire everybody?” Maverick’s not alone in making moves in the management space: Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management brings together 60 managers and more than 200 artists, with holdings in venues, branding, real estate and festivals that push the company’s earnings past $100 million. And Azoff, having inked a $125 million deal with Madison Square Garden Media last fall, has been making aggressive acquisitions in comedy, EDM and branding talent, picking up No Doubt and Gwen Stefani as clients as well.
But with the mixed response to U2’s free download deal with Apple surely fresh in his mind, Oseary says that “there are still a lot of people who are scared of innovation. There’s still a group that’s so quick to judge anyone trying [new things], and that’s one of our handicaps in the music business. We could all do so much more if a bunch of us got in a room more often.”
WORDS CANT EVEN EXPRESS HOW UPSET I AM AT THIS POINT WITH THE LAKERS !
Nash is expected to be ruled out for the 2014-15 NBA season because of recurring nerve damage in his back, according to league sources.
The LA Lakers confirmed the news Thursday evening.
Nash, 40, had said he expects this 19th NBA season to be his final one. But he has not announced his retirement. Nash has not stated an intention of playing for a team away from Los Angeles and his children, saying in March that he would be done if the Lakers used their stretch provision to cut him for salary-cap savings: “That would be it. I’ll either be back here or I’ll be done.”
Now, Nash might try to dream anew of more rest for a full year and one more shot. But his body has simply told him that it isn’t up to playing in the NBA, as much as his words have been telling people that he still loves playing and believes he can contribute if allowed.
Nash hurt himself last season getting out of bed. A week ago, he hurt himself carrying his bags.
He has continued to search for a way to shake the nerve issues—undertaking fanatical strengthening workouts at times and resting at others.
This is, at heart, the same person who decided he didn’t want to sit out as a teenager, got a buddy to help him cut a cast off his broken arm and played in his league basketball game that night.
He has also acknowledged wanting to collect the $9.7 million due to him for the 2014-15 season.
But Nash’s decision Thursday is confirmation of how little ground he is gaining so far away from his youth with an uphill battle this steep.
Nash was selected an All-Star by the league’s coaches as recently as 2012—the only other All-Stars aged 38 or older are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan—prompting the Lakers to jump at the chance to land him that summer.