Usher: The Man Who Dodged Napster

R&B heartthrob handles music, fans his way

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There's been a bit of controversy surrounding Usher's latest album, 8701, his first since 1997's six-times platinum My Way. Like many artists, his music was leaked via Napster months before the then-titled All About You was due. Instead of going through with the release as planned, Usher dumped the pirated tracks from the record, went back into the studio with new producers and recorded new songs to replace them.

The final results sizzle. Whether it's with a ballad or a hip-hop bounce, on 8701 -- which features guest vocalists P. Diddy, Babyface and Kelis, and producers the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis -- Usher aims for pelvis. His smooth voice tells stories about girls -- girls in the clubs, girls on the street, bad girls, ex-girlfriends. They're all tantalizing him, and he in turn tantalizes you.

The album, which debuted at Number Three this week on the U.S. album chart, is already a triumph, and the Atlanta-born Usher is hot in the U.K. as well: After his recent performance at London's Party in the Park for Prince Charles' Prince's Trust, security had to whisk him away from the horde of women that surrounded him. Waiting to meet Usher back at his hotel were the Spice Girls and Prince Charles himself.

Next year, Usher, who has appeared in the movies She's All That and The Faculty and the TV show Moesha, returns to the big-screen in Texas Rangers. But now he is all about music, rehearsing for his upcoming tour and ping-ponging across the globe promoting 8701 (named for its release date).

We caught up with him in North Carolina.

This is your third CD -- is the promotional process getting to be old hat?
The party's just begun, babe. Every album has it's own challenges. Since I've been away from music for so long, this is really a step for me to re-gain or re-position myself as an entertainer once again. Last time, I was just a singer who got a lot of great opportunities in acting. Now, it's really my chance to show that this is my direction in life, or in terms of what I plan on doing with my life for the next five or ten years.

Where were you when you heard that All About U was on Napster?
I was at home. My little brother and his friends would go on Napster to see what artists were actually on there. Dr. Dre, Metallica and a few other bands had been in the news, so they went on there. They said, "Ush, did you know that your record's on here." So instead of releasing a record that potentially could fail because I didn't get the opportunity to set it up right, I just pulled back and re-positioned myself, got with some great producers and re-named the album.

Did you find out who leaked it?
To this day I don't know. It's still a mystery.

How do you feel about Napster and the other music-file-sharing Web sites?
I don't think it's fair that our music is able to be downloaded and exploited like that. You know, this is my art and also my way of living. It's actually beneficial for those new artists who don't have the exposure, but I've sold so many records in the United States. You don't come back peeking your head out; you come in and you set a standard, and you give the record that you want. You start to dictate which direction you're going in, so people understand what's happening. They were receiving it in pieces. The first thing I thought to do was to pull it: "Let's go back and redo it before anybody starts talking." It was ridiculous. I just didn't understand how my music was leaked like that.

So you decided to fight back?
That's right. I felt it was more important for me to inform my fans what my plans were for the future. So in turn, not only did I pull my album back, but I created a Web site, www.usherworld.com, which would allow my fans to really know what it's all about.

What else is going to be on the site?
I'll have a Web cast from my shows and different events that I do. I have an Usherworld mall in there, which will allow you to purchase merchandise -- clothing, tour paraphernalia -- Usher radio.

Any baby pictures?
Yeah, there's gonna be a little something in there hopefully. Actually, I haven't gotten to that portion of it. I'm single-handedly building the site day to day. I have a company that I hired out of Atlanta, Georgia to really help me get it up and going. I just really want it to go over and beyond for my fans . . . There's a chat room. I go in there and do special chats with my fans. I have an Usher tracking system, which will allow you to know my whereabouts day to day.

How does that work?
There's a little map on [the site] that you go on to the navigational system, press Usher tracking, and a little compass, it'll show you exactly where I am. If I'm in France one day, and then I go from France to Amsterdam, it'll show you the move. If I go back to Los Angeles from Amsterdam, you'll know. You'll know everything that's going on with me. Eventually, it'll expand to my movies, my clothing line.

Talk about your fashion line.
Honestly right now I'm just getting into fashion. I want to get into a place where I can sort of dictate what fashion is, more than allowing fashion to dictate to me what's going on. After that, there will be a line. I don't have a name. It's really a step-by-step process. I'm building it, and then they'll come. That's my new policy: "I'll build it, and they'll come."

So, with the exception of Napster, the Web has been good to you, enabling you to reach out to your fans . . .
When you think about it, you only have so much time to read so many letters. When you have a guest book sign-in, people can leave you different notes. It allows me to keep very close contact with my fans.

So you've got pretty good fans?
Some are bad. I received a few threats from the KKK on different things.

How do you handle that?
We make a note of it. It if begins to surface, then we'll do something about it.

I guess it's the dark side of fame. How do you handle that?
Well, anonymity is something that I've had to sacrifice. I realize that I can't go back -- I have to go forward now.