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If Usher Raymond IV was totally devoid of talent and soul, he'd still be the last inhabitant on the Survivor island, or the guy who ate the most bugs and hung longest from the lip of some gruesome precipice on Fear Factor. But because Usher is not devoid of (nor, it must be pointed out, has he been particularly blessed by) these virtues, he is currently winning the more competitive reality show as the year's most popular musician. It's not the first time he has been in this position, and even a rudimentary glimpse into what makes him tick would cause one to lay odds that it won't be the last.
Six years ago--a pair of eternities in the fickle chronology of pop music--Usher was crowned Billboard magazine's Artist of the Year for 1998 on the strength of that year's most ubiquitous single, "You Make Me Wanna," and two other hits, "My Way" and "Nice and Slow." Few realized, then or now, what a pressure-packed ascendance the then-20-year-old singer had just achieved.
All Usher Raymond III ever really gave his son was a name. Right when Usher IV was entering his teens, his de facto dad for much of his childhood, Terry Patton, told his mom she had to choose between the marriage and Usher's embryonic career. His mom opted for divorce. Not long afterward, Usher's debut recording was a disaster. The pubescent voice that garnered him a deal with LaFace was changing, and producer Puffy Combs tarted him up as a junior member of Puff's Bad Boy posse. "I wasn't as hard a cat as the image they were trying to portray for me," Usher explained to me six years ago. Over the next two years, his voice remained unpredictable, stress-related acne ravaged his dimpled face, and a fully completed project with producer Dallas Austin was shelved.
Hours after accepting the Billboard award in Vegas, Usher hopped a 4:00 a.m. red-eye flight to Chicago and was on the set of the film Light It Up later that morning. Said Belita Moreno, the acting coach who helped him with his first starring role, "He understands that a real artist never arrives, he always has to keep pushing. I've worked with hundreds of actors, many of them are stars now, but I don't know if I've ever worked with somebody as hungry as he is."
Light It Up was a box-office dud. 8701, Usher's long-delayed follow-up to his 1998 blockbuster, My Way, was, despite its number-one single "U Remind Me," a disappointment commercially, if not artistically. But now there's Confessions (Arista), a concept album about hedonism and heartache in the fast lane of hip-hop culture, anchored by a triptych of hook-heavy, thematically interwoven, incandescent singles. With its musically seamless and soap-operatically dramatic blend of grimy crunk lasciviousness and butterscotch Babyfaced sweetness, "Yeah!" was deservedly the song of the summer, setting up "Confessions Part II" and "Burn" to sift through the emotional toll caused by the dalliance it depicts.
It's difficult to imagine anyone enacting the various nuances of this tableau more credibly than Usher does. With his washboard abs and acne-free dimples, he's the erstwhile ugly duckling turned self-made swan, a mama's boy rushed too soon toward thuggery, ambitious but genuine, and equally torn between pleasure and persistence, between the cool thing and the right thing to do. And it certainly doesn't hurt that he's also a seasoned, steadily maturing vocalist who can command the rhythmic intricacy of rap-song phraseology, deliver a convincing falsetto, and know just when to turn the spigot on the emotional fire hydrant, from the delicious exasperation of "How the hell am I supposed to leave" on "Yeah!" to the climatic bridge on "Burn."
Put simply, even when he's recounting how everything has fallen apart, Usher seems as though he'll never succumb to the peccadilloes (and worse) that have waylaid his idols, Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson. As much as anyone, he's an early frontrunner for Billboard's Artist of the Year, circa 2008.