With more than 75 million records sold, it might surprise some to know that R&B star Usher ranks as one of the best-selling music artists ever on a global level. There's a reason why Billboard named him the second most successful artist of the 2000s and the RIAA considers Usher as one of the best-selling artists in American music history, with more than 23.8 million albums and 38.2 million digital tracks sold in that country alone.
Having toed a line between R&B and pop for more than two decades, he — ahem — ushered in a sparking take on soul-influenced music that took its mainstream cues from Michael Jackson and Prince to deliver a sound that served as the urban pop template for the likes of Justin Timberlake. From his start as a child star, milling around as an under-aged minor with Sean "Puffy" Combs, to his current status as Justin Bieber's rep and minority owner for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, he's as underrated as he is celebrated. His eight studio album, Flawed, is due September 16.
1978 to 1992
Usher Terry Raymond IV is born to mother Jonetta Patton and father Usher Raymond III on October 14 in Dallas, TX. His parents end their relationship when Usher is young, due to his father's heavy drug use; his mother moves him and younger brother James to Chattanooga, TN. Jonetta would describe Usher's father as "into drugs, into having a great time and that was it." Usher loses touch with his father and will have minimal contact with him moving forward.
His mother, a medical technician, becomes a director at St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church and pushes Usher into performing in the gospel choir in his formative years. Singing in church grooms him for future stardom, he will tell the Washington Post in 1998. As his career takes off, his mother leaves her job to act as his manager.
At age 11, he joins a local R&B quintet dubbed NuBeginning. The group record ten songs and regionally release an album, NuBeginning Featuring Usher Raymond IV. But citing the involvement as "a bad experience," mother Jonetta pulls him out of the group.
Having demonstrated an aptitude for singing, in 1990 at the age of 12, he tours the local singing competition circuit, drawing the attention of LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid.
"I was always the kid that would just sit by the radio at sleepovers," Usher will tell Vibe magazine in 1998. "Kids would be like, 'Come play hide and go seek,' but I'd want to stay up and hear the slow jams on the radio, because they didn't play those songs during the day." In 1992, Usher is featured on the TV show Star Search as a national teen champion. After a convincing a cappella rendition of Boyz II Men's 1992 hit "End of the Road," a record deal offer from LaFace Records comes shortly after. "Usher represents the next generation of R&B soul," Reid would later tell Billboard.
1993 to 1996
Usher signs a recording contract with LaFace and moves to Atlanta, GA to be closer to the label's headquarters. His first LaFace single, "Call Me a Mack," featured on the soundtrack for the 1993 Tupac Shakur/Janet Jackson vehicle Poetic Justice, is mildly received, landing at number #56 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
There are early concerns about how to best market the cherubic-looking young singer. He experiences minor issues adjusting post-puberty, and loses his voice for a brief period. Slightly doubtful of Usher's marketability, Reid nonetheless connects Usher and his mother with emerging mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs of Bad Boy Records fame, who takes him under his wing as his "little brother." In his mid-teens, Usher moves to New York City to record his debut; he stays at Combs' house and works with collaborators like DeVante Swing of R&B act Jodeci, and Dave "Jam!" Hall. Combs' lavish home and lifestyle is an eye-opener for the teenager. "There were always girls around," he would later tell Rolling Stone.
His self-titled debut, released in 1994, features Combs' trademark "new jack" hip-hop approach to R&B, along with sexually charged lyrics that don't seem suitable for a 15-year-old. "That whole bad-boy thing, me frowning for the camera — that wasn't me," he would later tell People magazine.
The solidly produced album sells a low 500,000 copies. The record wasn't promoted enough is the opinion of Usher's mother Jonetta. She notes in a 1998 interview that she didn't approve of her son hanging around Combs, Biggie Smalls, Craig Mack and the rest of the Bad Boy roster of artists.
"I was young, maybe too young to be talking about making love to a girl, because that wasn't reality," Usher will tell Vibe magazine. "That just wasn't the record that would make them say, 'I love Usher.'"
1997 to 2000
Although reportedly not a great student, Usher completes high school and releases his second album, My Way, in 1997. Seeking a new direction, L.A. Reid connects Usher with Jermaine Dupri, a producer and owner of the So So Def record label, which features artists such as Missy Elliott, Kris Kross and Da Brat. The duo craft a new sound more fitting with Usher's age and personality, like a slightly edgier Michael Jackson. Usher co-writes six of the nine songs on the album. "I did a lot more on this album," he tells the Kansas City Star, "because I'm older and have more of an opinion." Dupri tells Vibe magazine in 1998: "A lot of people were like, 'What are you gonna do that Puffy didn't?' I feel like I pulled out the real Usher."
Usher becomes the best-selling male pop recording artist of 1998. My Way, behind singles like "You Make Me Wanna…" and "My Way," sells more than eight million copies.
He makes a foray into acting, appearing on the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful and the hit UPN television show Moesha, featuring fellow R&B singer Brandy. He makes his big screen debut with a small role in the Robert Rodriguez's sci-fi thriller The Faculty and appears as a DJ in the teen comedy She's All That.
2001 to 2003
At age 22, Usher releases his third album, initially titled All About U before being revised and retitled 8701 after a tepid response to single "Pop Ya Collar." The retooled album features hit singles "U Remind Me" and "U Don't Have to Call," and is intended to define his maturity and artistic evolution. "I learned how music works dealing with Jermaine Dupri," he tells USA Today, "and I learned how image works dealing with Puff Daddy."
8701 is certified quadruple platinum in the United States; in 2001, Usher becomes the only solo male artist to top the Billboard 100 chart twice in the same year. The record goes on to sell more than eight million copies and wins two Grammys, for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "U Remind Me" and the same award the next year for "U Don't Have to Call."
2004 to 2005
Usher appears on the cover of Rolling Stone and makes his first appearance on Saturday Night Live. He also begins dating his "dream girl," former TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, who is seven years older. They end their relationship, amid claims of infidelity. Usher tells Jet magazine: "It was something as a man I admitted to. As a man, I had to sit down and have a real-talk conversation with my woman and I talked to her." The subsequent tabloid fodder fuels his next album, Confessions, arguably his best to date; it includes hit singles "Yeah!" featuring Lil Jon, "Burn" and the title track. "I knew this album was going to be big. I couldn't wait for it to drop," he tells Ebony magazine.
The record goes on to sell more than 15 million copies globally and he earns two Grammys for Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Later that year, his duet with R&B/pop artist Alicia Keys, "My Boo," is a hit and earns another Grammy award, this time for Best R&B Performance by A Duo.
In 2005, Usher scores three Grammy Awards and is nominated for Album of the Year. He performs with James Brown during the show and is dubbed the "godson of soul" by the artist afterward. "James Brown will always be the Godfather of Soul and to receive that compliment was great," Usher would say later.
He invests a reported $9 million for a minority stake in the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. With Confessions' success, he earns the distinction of being only the third act — after the Beatles and the Bee Gees — to have three singles on Billboard's Top 10 chart simultaneously.
Usher makes his theatrical debut on Broadway as Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago. "I have always admired Broadway actors for their showmanship, dedication and focus that goes into performing live on stage every night," he says in a media statement. It would be a brief stint; Usher bows out two months later, citing a strep throat infection.
2007 to 2008
At age 28, Usher welcomes his son, Usher Raymond V, with his former stylist Tameka Foster, who is eight years his senior. The relationship will be scrutinized by both Usher's mother and the media; Foster is frequently depicted as a "gold-digger," and Usher constantly defends the union. "People say it's my fault he made all those songs. It was saddening," Foster will tell the New York Times in 2010. "For a man to find a mate and profess their love publicly, and then for fans to be mad at him just shows the immaturity in so many of them."
"With a child, now I have purpose. I understand love," Usher tells Ebony magazine. His second son, Naviyd, is born a year later. Usher's mother does not approve of the relationship and doesn't attend when Usher gets married in September, 2007. Usher and his mother end their relationship as manager and client.
He releases the well-received single "Love in this Club" and 2008 album Here I Stand. The project depicts his new life as a married man and father, he tells Entertainment Weekly. "I was reading very hurtful things about the person that I chose to love, and I felt like they were taking stabs at me or my choice."
Usher's father, Usher Raymond III, dies from a heart attack in January 2008, which hits Usher hard. The death is allegedly brought on by frequent drug use, including crack cocaine. He tells the UK newspaper The Sun: "I was not raised with my father, so it was tough, but I did reconcile before his death, which gave me great comfort. He had troubles, but took responsibility for his actions."
Usher files for divorce from Foster and enters into a protracted battle for custody of his two sons. "The friend that I was to Tameka, I don't know that I could ever be again, because I really felt like we were friends," he tells Oprah Winfrey in a TV interview. "She made us enemies in a way that I could never understand."
Beating out a competing offer by Justin Timberlake, Usher signs young Justin Bieber from Stratford, ON, who has ganered a huge following on YouTube. Describing Bieber as a "young phenomenon," Usher signs him to his company — the Raymond-Braun Media Group (RBMG), a joint venture with talent manager Scooter Braun — and serves as Bieber's mentor and friend.
"It was his natural charisma," he will say of Bieber in a 2016 radio interview. "His manager, Scooter Braun, introduced me to him. He wanted to develop him with someone who he knew would be able to help him."
"Our relationship is more man-to-man now," Usher tells Billboard in 2014. "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 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 performs at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.
2010 to 2012
Because his previous album, 2008's Here I Stand, didn't sell as well as previous outings, there is pressure to reinvent both his sound and image. Mark Pitts, president of urban music at the Jive Label Group, is determined to ensure the upcoming sixth album, Raymond v. Raymond, recaptures Usher's early successes. "The scrutiny of everything going on, he was worrying too much about what people were thinking," Pitts tells The New York Times. "We felt like we had to get his swagger back. Dust off the bed and get it popping and young again."
Post-divorce project Raymond v. Raymond scores a hit with "OMG" (featuring will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas) and "Papers," a song about the messy marriage and breakup. The album wins two American Music Awards and Usher becomes only the third artist to have at least one number one song from five consecutive studio albums.
Tragedy strikes Usher and Foster when Foster's son (from a previous relationship), Kile Glover, is declared brain dead in July of 2012, after being struck by a personal water craft on Georgia's Lake Lanier.
It is announced in 2012 that Usher will portray legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in the 2016 motion picture, Hands of Stone. He also releases Looking 4 Myself, which features hit singles "There Goes My Baby" and "Climax," and garners another three Grammy awards. He tells MTV News that the record is his most artistic to date.
Usher's five-year-old son is rushed to intensive care after a pool accident in which his arm gets caught in a pool drain. He is rescued by two contractors who run to the pool to assist.
He signs on to join The Voice, serving as a coach on the singing competition, subbing in for CeeLo Green.
2014 to 2016
Usher tells The Fader that he is hard at work on a new album, his eighth. He says the album is "everything you can imagine," adding that it's "gonna be freaking out of here" in terms of musicality. He releases a trio of songs in 2014, including the poppy "Good Kisser," the uptempo "She Came to Give It to You" and trap-influenced "I Don't Mind." All three garner a positive but not overwhelming reception. The then-untitled album is subsequently delayed.
In 2014, TMZ reports that an Usher sex tape, featuring his then-wife, Tameka Raymond, is being distributed on the black market. The tape was allegedly obtained off of Usher's computer after the singer's car was broken into in 2010. While Usher refuses to comment on the issue, TMZ also reports that his lawyer is "aggressively trying to handle the situation."
Usher marries his current manager Grace Miguel in a private ceremony in 2015.
His eighth album, titled UR before being retitled Flawed, is delayed several times. "I'm trying to tear the layers back and make it not so contrived," he tells Billboard of the challenges of experimenting with his sound. He releases singles "Crash" — touted as a "Kygo-style tropical house" track — and the politically conscious "Chains," featuring rapper Nas and German singer-songwriter Bibi Bourelly.
The album is initially slated for a summer 2016 release but is pushed back again. Although a hugely successful artist, Usher says he's aware of the need to create new sounds in order to be successful in today's music landscape. "If I call myself an entertainer," he tells iHeartRadio, "then that means I should be able to do it all, I should be able to reach out, to have an understanding of different genres, have an idea about how music is made. The point is to evolve. To find the opportunity to build the brand — we all individually are brands, and the more we diversify and reach into other areas, the more we grow."
My Way (LaFace/Arista, 1997)
While My Way was his second album, the project was effectively his breakthrough. The mid-tempo hit title track will serve as Usher's signature sound — R&B/pop vibes twinned with personal lyrics. The followup single, "Nice and Slow," represents '90s R&B in a nutshell: hip-hop-influenced soul. My Way is a platinum-seller for good reason.
8701 (Arista, 2001)
Featuring standout production from heavyweight names such as the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the 15-track 8701 (named in reference to Usher's background singing gospel in 1987 and the year of release), the project finds Usher in full swag mode. Singles such as "U Remind Me," "U Got It Bad" and "U Don't Have to Call" define the turn-of-the-century's emerging bling-bling era of hip-hop and soul.
Confessions (LaFace/Arista, 2004)
From start to finish, this early 2000s album laid the groundwork for R&B-infused pop music for the rest of the decade. Mining tabloid drama stemming from a very public relationship and then breakup with Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas of the rap-soul trio TLC, the record lays bare Usher's imperfections and vulnerabilities, producing solid tracks like the title track and the "crunk-meets-R&B" of megahit "Yeah!" featuring Lil Jon.