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When Usher first arrived in Las Vegas two years ago for a stint of shows at Caesars Palace, it had been six years and one-and-a-half albums since he’d done a full tour. But because he is Usher, he quickly shook off any stage rust and transformed himself into one of the most sought-after performers in a town already overflowing with sought-after performers. The Caesars show was such a crazy success that he’d soon parlay it into an even bigger Vegas residency—sweaty, theatrical, lascivious; extremely Usher—down the street at the Park MGM, where he became one of the most dedicated employees on MGM’s payroll. And it turns out, he kind of loves having a job.
So it’s on a chilly night in December that MGM is throwing its annual company holiday party, about 15 minutes off the Strip in an otherwise bland event space. A Hallmark-movie-handsome singer is belting out jazz standards to a tipsy audience of Gen X’ers who are doing the office party two-step. And inside the glass foyer, between the double doors into the space and another set of double doors outside, is Usher, who is trying to get into the corporate holiday party but—at least for the moment—can’t.
He’s the world-famous singer of a dozen club anthems and a dozen more crooning, desirous ballads, but tonight the superstar is politely waiting at the door. Across eight studio albums, Usher is one of the defining artists of the ’90s and the aughts. His music is for house parties, clubs, breakups, grind trains, and affairs. From his sophomore album, My Way, on, he has become almost synonymous with a good lay or a good time. He performed at both of Obama’s inauguration concerts and introduced the world to a shy Canadian teen named Justin Bieber. But in the 2010s his output mellowed, and he seemed to disappear from the spotlight. At least before he found himself again, here, in Sin City.
Apparently, there had been some miscommunication. Usher was invited to the holiday party by MGM’s top brass. Someone said Usher was going to come, then someone said Usher wasn’t going to come, and then, hours later, Usher and his entourage of three plus me materialized at the entrance. (Every time I have fantasized about going to a party with a famous, intensely desired man—which is often, because I am a dreamer and also a Leo—it has never played out like this.) It’s freezing in this lobby-atrium-foyer thing, but Usher is flashing a dimpled smile. He’s wearing a bouclé overcoat with a puffer vest and T-shirt underneath; his hair is chartreuse-blond. Diamonds, each the size of an AirPod, are lodged in his ears via conch piercings. We are talking to a frazzled woman with a drink in her hand who is trying to figure out what the hell to do with us.
“We didn’t know you were coming!” she says. “Let me—I’ll go get someone.” But then Usher smiles at her and she smiles back and that idea of going to get someone slips her mind. “Here,” she says, “just follow me!”
We are led to a back room, with a small bar, a few tables, and metallic streamers cheerily, if haphazardly, hanging on the walls. Someone gets Usher a drink, and a charcuterie board appears for the rest of us. A string of MGM bigwigs—and the MGM bigwigs’ wives and kids and kids’ college friends—catch word that Usher is in the back and quickly arrive to schmooze.
He graciously chats with all of them and poses for selfies. After about an hour—just long enough for a tipsy woman to ask Usher if he’s seen White Lotus—we retreat to the car. There is a dinner reservation at Carbone waiting. On the way out, we are offered gift bags full of chocolate, which everyone politely declines.
Everyone, that is, but Usher. I turn around and he’s fleeing the scene like the Hamburglar with two armfuls of goodies, grinning: “You’re going to pass these up?!”
He doesn’t look like it, but Usher is 44. He’s been making music for three decades now, and was at the center of pop music for two of them. He outlasted his immediate predecessor, R. Kelly, and has more number ones than his immediate successor, Chris Brown. His long list of hits also eclipses the catalog of Justin Timberlake, the closest thing he’s had to a true rival. But Usher doesn’t view his career in competitive terms. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in competition with anyone else,” he says cheerfully. “I’m a celebrator of music!”
In the late ’90s, Usher rode a sensual stream of hits produced by Jermaine Dupri to stardom before going supernova with Confessions, the 2004 album that transformed the singer into a bad boy. Usher can make the best of traditional R&B (“U Got It Bad”) or bring his falsetto to the most thrilling EDM-tinged R&B (“Climax”). Some music critics have long dinged him for this, his genre hopping, his uncanny ability to figure out what an Usher song should sound like in the key of the day’s most popular music. But he’s proud of his whole catalog, EDM phase included. “I haven’t gone country,” Usher tells me, “but I’m just sayin’.” That’s the thing about Usher. He could if he wanted to.
In 2019, Usher teased his ninth studio album with the maybe-title Confessions 2. The prospect of a sequel caused a minor internet uproar. “Dis what yall want…” Usher wrote in a caption on Instagram. Fans responded with an emphatic, roaring, squealing: Yes!!!!
But the more he worked on the album, the less interested he was in making another Confessions. He hit a creative wall and was frustrated with the industry. “I can’t be who I was. I don’t want to be who I was. I want to be better than what I was,” Usher says, then adds, with a wry laugh, “That might be a problem.” He hasn’t released an album in what feels like forever: The last time Usher put out a full-length solo album, Obama was still in the White House and it was a Tidal exclusive.
Then, in 2021, just as the world was shaking off the pandemic and masked partying became socially acceptable, Usher tried out the 20-show run at Caesars Palace. Then came the amped-up version at the Park MGM that made him the new king of Las Vegas, with secondary-market ticket prices that skyrocketed like 2021 GameStop stock. Kim Kardashian was devastated when bad weather threw a wrench into her birthday plans, as the private jet had to turn around and she ended up missing the show. Usher says he tries not to get too swept up in the highs and lows. “Fat Joe says yesterday’s price is not today’s price,” he says, shrugging.
But the Usherssance fully washed over us last summer when he sang stripped-down versions of his hits for NPR’s Tiny Desk series. Usher was as warm and charming and perpetually youthful as ever, dressed like someone who had beamed back into the Matrix. The performance was ostensibly a celebration of his second album’s 25th anniversary, but really it was a celebration of one man’s continued dominance: Old music from Usher is better than new music from almost anyone else.
“I went to Tiny Desk and I literally sang my classic records,” says Usher. “And people loved it.” NPR listeners voted it their favorite Tiny Desk of the year, with 14 million views and counting. But it was his “Confessions Part II” flourish, framing his face with sideways peace signs and whispering “Watch this,” that was too extra to not go viral.
It’s—forgive me—10 o’clock, on the dot, and Usher and I are in an SUV cruising the streets. There’s a 40-foot-tall version of Usher in front of me on an LED billboard advertising 2023 dates for Usher: My Way, the Las Vegas Residency. The real human-size version is next to me, wistfully staring at the Bellagio fountain show as traffic slows to a crawl. “Singin’ in the Rain” plays as plumes of water burst into the sky, twirling and twisting in concert, and Usher just sort of mindlessly sings along.
You see, Usher believes in Las Vegas, like someone who saw the glamorous first hour of Casino but not the subsequent stressful two hours of Casino. For Usher, Vegas is a place of renewal, a place of rebirth. The healing powers of Vegas have baptized him and made him anew. “Las Vegas is very important because it actually speaks to my career, to be in a place where I can dream, where I can incubate ideas,” he says. “A place where I can be creative.” Onstage, that means that he’s putting on the biggest, most brazen show of his life. Offstage, nothing is off-limits: He’s riding his Vegas high and wants to pursue brand collaborations, restaurants, fashion, jewelry, skin care, makeup. Me, dumb, thinks it’s depressing to make every part of yourself consumable. Usher, smart, doesn’t see it that way. “You can do so much!” he says optimistically. “The question is: Is it aspirational? That’s the thing.”
When Usher speaks, his ideas unfurl in dreamy monologues, long stories, dramatic lectures. At one point, he talks about that frustrating period of his career, about how the industry was putting R&B in a box. “It’s not hip-hop enough, it’s not current enough, it’s not TikTok savvy, it’s not memeable,” he says. “That shit can be frustrating for an artist who is all about passion. I literally want to go and sing and perform for audiences.”
Middle age has made him more ruminative; doing the show made him more intentional about his purpose. “I’m feeling inspired again, to now launch new music and also to continue to keep this phenomenon going,” Usher says. “It’s just really been about celebration of entertainment, celebration of the standard that was set by these incredible guys”—names like Prince, Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly—“who inspired me.”
RCA president Mark Pitts, a record producer and longtime Usher collaborator, noticed something different in his friend after the first run of Vegas shows. “It’s almost like that fish that’s been on land,” says Pitts. “Now that he’s onstage, he jumped in the water. That’s his comfort zone. It’s always been him being onstage.”
For his My Way residency, the audience becomes Usher’s special guests in a libidinous world of his creation. Usher is in front of you and beside you, and then he’s center stage, dry humping a mic stand. That his comfort zone includes dancers in clubbing attire pantomiming reverse cowgirl while he sings “Lovers and Friends,” as an auntie in her mid-40s captures it all on an iPad from a seat in the mezzanine? That’s Usher, baby!
Last fall, Usher’s two teenage sons begged him to take them to a concert. He obliged, of course, but he didn’t expect to be so wowed by what someone else could do onstage.
“I literally went to a Blackpink concert in Atlanta, and I was like, man!” Usher says, laughing. “I’m goofy! I’m looking like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ ” He loved the K-pop group’s attention to detail. The storytelling, the choreography, the level of thought that seemingly went into every creative decision. He took notes in his head. “They were putting on a show. Wardrobe, great sequencing, with the lighting and everything working in sync—there’s no detail spared. I loved that.”
He wants his own Las Vegas show to maintain a similar standard of excellence, one he doesn’t see as often anymore. He designed My Way, explicitly, to cater to the female gaze. Usher believes with all his heart that the women who come to see him are overdue for a good time. “I really wanted to give women something to look forward to, something to come here to Las Vegas with their friends for,” he says. “They’ve been saving up all year and were able to manage to get away from their kids or get away from their problems.”
I think about one particularly horny moment during the show where Usher has his arms out, Christ-like, his chiseled-by-Michelangelo muscles peeking out of his low-rise pants, providing a safe harbor for Shein-wearing mothers everywhere who need a break. I giggle a little bit, the sheer silliness of Usher meticulously planning moments like this for a ladies’ night, but he’s dead serious. “No, really!” he says. “They come out and really enjoy themselves for the entire weekend. They want to be able to really get away and have an experience.”
Conceptually, the show combines the strip clubs of Atlanta with the choreography of Broadway. (“I literally put a fucking strip club onstage!” he gushes.) The stage transforms into Magic City, into a roller skating rink, into a jazz club. “He wanted it to be larger than life,” says Lil Jon, who worked with Usher on the music for the first residency at Caesars Palace. “No one has ever brought Atlanta culture to Vegas. Roller skating is a major part of the culture in Atlanta. The strip club scene is a major part of the culture in Atlanta.”
And, my God, what a show! Usher has so many squeal-when-the-first-notes-play hits that when “Love in This Club” is the fifth song played, I actually clutch my chest because if the synth loops don’t catapult you to heaven, you won’t be going. But every song feels like a finale song, because every song is an Usher song, because Usher is a master of creating little moments. “When you got ’em, you gotta run ’em, you know? Play the hits, you know what I’m sayin’?” he says. “I got so many songs. I’m actually shocked sometimes. I’m like, Oh, shit! They love these songs.”
In polite deadpan, Usher’s sheen of humility slips away. People seem to forget just how influential and instrumental Usher has always been. The Vegas residency puts him back in the pocket and allows him to access his greatest gifts. It’s why he’s said he could never do a Verzuz: There’s no one you could compare him to, and no one who could outperform him. What’s a win to an icon?
The 2023 iteration of the residency, which comes back in late February, will be revamped slightly. Usher thinks of the show as a narrative. “It’s this hero’s journey of this person who finally comes to grips with who and what he is, and where he’s been, and owning some of the pain that he’s caused,” he says. “All of that happens in the second show. The third show is the next chapter of that story.”
Three nights a week there will be reliable thrills. At one point, Usher sings “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)” and walks through the crowd. He’s flanked by security guards, but even a small cadre of Navy SEALs would be outmatched by the mothers and aunties and nieces who will, hulking security be damned, make a mad dash to the aisle to brush against Usher and serenade him with his own songs. One night a woman ran from the outer edges of the row to the aisle and straight into his arms: “Hey, Daddy!” she screamed.
The show is dirty, duh, and horny, obviously. But more than anything it’s a showcase for Usher’s all-absorbing desire to give his fans a good time. “I don’t really get tired, because I’m doing what I actually love doing. I find that energy that brings me through it,” he says. “And furthermore, I really like sweating.”
Show night for him starts show morning. “I wake up, I have breakfast, and I kind of move around. I do something that gets my energy going. Ride a bike, I walk, I go swimming, go do something short,” he begins. “Then I go to the venue and I start going through the process of working on the show. If there’s special guests or something like that, or something I want to change with the wardrobe, or a lighting thing that I saw didn’t happen the way I wanted it to and I needed to fix it.” His fastidiousness does not go unnoticed. “I’ve seen him go to the venue, rehearse, and not leave so he can get everything right,” says Lil Jon. “He’s gonna work.”
After he makes his tweaks, Usher places a few business calls before his actual daily workout. Then he does his vocal warm-up—“about an hour and a half or an hour, literally just doing scales and tryna make certain everything is where it needs to be,” he says—and rides that energy all the way until the curtains rise. “If you were not doing something that you really wanna do, then nine times out of 10 you’re going to be really fucking tired at the end of the night,” he says. “But I’m doing something that I really, really enjoy doing. So by the time I get to the show, I’m, like, fired up.”
After the show is the after-party. “This little after-set that I have. And we party till about three or four in the morning,” he says. “You would think that I’m, like, fucking exhausted and need to take my ass to sleep.” But Usher is not fucking exhausted, and Usher does not need to take his ass to sleep: “I go back to the room and I’m like, shit, I’m up!”
The Las Vegas Carbone is like a supersized version of the New York City Carbone, the moody, reliably unpretentious Olive Garden for the celebrity and DeuxMoi-obsessed set. Where the New York Carbone is downtown and glamorously unassuming, the Vegas Carbone is massive and flashier, a space that looks like it was built from the bones of an old Cheesecake Factory. A few tables do double takes when Usher walks in; the star remains nonchalant. He slips out of the coat and into a wide cherry booth. We sit on one side to chat; his partner of four years, Epic Records senior vice president of A&R Jennifer Goicoechea, and his manager and creative director sit on the other.
Tonight he is endlessly patient, politely gracious. He is also one of the most inquisitive people I have ever met: Do I like oysters? (No! Sorry.) Have I been to Carbone, have I had the carpaccio? (Yes; no.) Do I like to gamble? (Beloved—I don’t have gambling money.) What was it like for me growing up in Tulsa, in a center of Black industry always trying to rebuild, and is there anything in Tulsa for Usher to learn about building infrastructure for Black entrepreneurship elsewhere?
Usher’s mother, he says, raised him to be humble. He was born in Dallas but raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta. He came up through talent shows and Star Search. While in high school, he signed with L.A. Reid’s LaFace label, which was later absorbed by Arista. When Reid needed a teenage Usher to find his It factor, he sent him to what he called “Puffy Flavor Camp” in New York to level up. Usher’s self-titled first album failed to produce a gold single; his second album, My Way, had three records that went platinum.
At one point during dinner, I ask Usher when he felt he achieved icon status, and his answer meanders modestly: “When did I become an icon? Could it be a certain number of hit records, number ones? Albums sold? Awards given? Comparisons? Becoming the standard for other artists? I’m trying to figure out…”
He goes on and on like this before he lands on Confessions, obviously, his magnum opus. His fourth studio album and the best-selling R&B album of the 21st century by a male singer.
Your typical good album has maybe one string of perfect songs; Confessions has, like, three separate strings of perfect songs. You could remove both parts of “Confessions” from Confessions and you’d still have “Yeah!” and “Caught Up” and “Burn” and “Superstar” and, on the expanded edition, “My Boo.” During the pandemic, when it was cool to Peloton, I was desperate enough for an all-Usher ride that I did the only one offered: a 30-minute session where the instructor spoke entirely in German.
Confessions-era Usher made improbable earworms out of shame and indiscretions, with the best songs exploring dark themes. The stories weren’t all his, but they gave his smooth melodies and perfect falsetto an edge. He sang about having a good girl but wanting a bad one. About his chick on the side getting pregnant and choosing not to have an abortion. About the slow fade to black of a cached-out relationship. About walking hand in hand in the Beverly Center, like man, not giving a damn who sees.
The album captured lightning in a bottle. “The conversation, the music, the entertainment, the dialogue, the energy around it. The toxic R&B of it. Because,” according to Usher, Confessions “was the birth of toxic R&B.”
“Yo, but by the way, toxic was just being honest,” he adds. “It’s how you choose to say it.”
He’s using “toxic” in a modern context, the internet dating-app-slash-pseudo-therapy definition: selfish, dishonest, indignant. It was Usher’s word choice, not mine. The back-to-back tracks “Confessions” and “Confessions Part II” get at the central tension of his music. He will tease out your worst impulses, your most selfish indulgences. Guilt, the songs suggest, is a creative gift. It leads to a good story and a great song. Watch this.
But the real linchpin of Usher’s music was always his honesty, how insistent he was on owning the parts about him that were lovable and also the parts that got him into trouble. “Confessions Part II” was a complex narrative; Usher is presented as its villain and maestro. If he’s gonna tell it, then he’s gotta tell it all. The generation of singers that came after Usher seems to either resent women or discard them, which couldn’t be further from his approach. “Toxic now is like: I’m fucked up and I’m just sayin’ I’m fucked up, and that’s it, with no remorse,” he says. His conscience is what separates Usher’s best songs from his successors’. He’s thinking about you when he does good, and he’s thinking about you when he does bad.
Part of Usher’s Vegas experiment is to put down roots here and see what he can grow. The time he’s not spending on music, and the residency, is given to figuring out how R&B can be grounded in the present to create something new. “Contemporary music moves differently,” Usher says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not delusional. But I just think that R&B is not given the same respect.”
Due to forces outside his control, R&B is almost always perceived as languishing or is semipermanently being eulogized. Pitts argues that the industry goes out of its way to dodge labeling a new song R&B. Think about it this way: If a song goes to a younger artist, it’s called pop music and becomes a crossover hit. For an established star like Usher, that same song would immediately be slotted into urban adult contemporary. Usher argues that R&B is a fixed idea, at least in the minds of record executives, and he’s trying to change that.
He wants to make R&B more endlessly consumable, like hip-hop, and points to what I’m wearing. “That hoodie? That’s hip-hop. Those earrings? That’s hip-hop. That hairstyle? That’s hip-hop,” he says. “R&B doesn’t have as many tangibles.” R&B is heartache and longing and wooing—big, smooth feelings. The course for R&B’s future, according to Usher, is to make it purchasable beyond an album or a concert. To make R&B a vibe you can hold in your hands.
“For some reason, hip-hop has always been aspirational, period, because of its defiance and going against the grain,” he says. “It feels disruptive. And R&B? It might not always feel that way. So I’m working on that part.”
As a teenager still finding his footing, Usher spent some time in New York living with Pitts, who would later go on to A&R Confessions. “He was always walking around the house singing, just singing,” Pitts remembers. “I used to be like, ‘Shut the hell up!’ He wanted it bad.”
While Pitts was instrumental in Usher’s early career, it was L.A. Reid, the legendary record producer, who was the architect. Reid discovered Usher and launched him into the culture, overseeing his first four studio albums. But the two had a falling out after Confessions was completed, and Reid would move on to Island Def Jam. “I’m still blown away by Confessions, which is the last time that he and I worked together,” Reid tells me. “It might be the last diamond [R&B] album before streaming took over the world.”
They reunited last year, when Reid says he found himself seated across from Usher at a dinner in Atlanta. It was a big group, and Usher seemed to just…appear. “It felt like it could be spontaneous, but I swear it could have been by design,” Reid says. The two started talking, and Usher asked if he could play him some records to get his opinion.
That listening session led to the pair working on new music together for the first time in nearly two decades. “He’ll stay behind the mic literally for five, six hours without even a bathroom break,” Reid says. “He’ll stand there and sing and sing and sing.” Lil Jon says he, along with Sean Garrett and Bobby Avila, has also been working on the new album, which doesn’t have a title yet but almost certainly won’t be called Confessions 2. “He’s not gonna just settle,” says Lil Jon of how Usher works. “If it ain’t the best it can be, he’s gonna go back in and do it over to make it better.”
Both Usher and Reid describe their reunion as a full-circle moment: Reid discovered Usher, and now Usher has returned to his creative home. “His system is what created that expectation for me, as a young artist,” Usher says. “So now, damn near 25 or some odd years later, we feel inspired to go out and create more artists.”
The two are even starting a new record label together. Usher says he’ll be the first signee.
It’s getting late and the vibe at Carbone is turning down, but someone has turned the music up. Specifically, Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance/Stay With Me (Remix)”—and Usher and Goicoechea start rapping it to each other:
“I’m clockin’ ya, Versace shades watchin’ ya. Once ya grin, I’m in. Game begins.”
“Whoo! N-ggas are still wearing Versace shades,” he interrupts. “They stuck!”
Usher starts to tell a story from early in his career, when he was in the studio with Biggie, just watching him record music. “He didn’t write anything down,” says Usher. “He lined up four blunts, ran it back, just listening [to the beat].” By the third blunt, the rapper was ready to lay down the track.
“He was the most profound talent I think I’ve ever seen in an MC. Coming up with shit off the top of his head, the ability to make things so vivid. That shit was profound, man.” (Also like that? André 3000, he says.) That’s the energy Usher wants for his next album: not nostalgia but the consistency of a king, of a master, of a professional in total command of his gifts.
Usher is not chasing a younger audience, or a different audience. He is bridging the gap between music’s present and music’s past, either the youngest icon of the old tradition or one of the few true icons of the new. “Someone in a meeting said recently that Jay-Z is an ‘older rapper,’ ” Pitts tells me. “And I said, ‘He’s an older rapper, but he’s a young billionaire.’ So now you got to change the narrative. Usher, yeah, he may be an older singer, but he is embracing all of the people who paved the way in music. He was giving them their flowers, and that makes him look younger.”
Usher’s always trying to look forward. He can have fun celebrating his greatest hits while not living in their reissues; he’s not J.Lo pulling out the green dress again. Two years ago, when Bennifer reunited and cicadas were swarming the Northeast, a friend suggested to me that we were one Usher song away from 2004.
But Usher doesn’t share the culture’s same obsession with nostalgia.
“I don’t want to make Coming to America 2, I don’t wanna do that,” he says. “What was done is done. 8701? There will not be an 8702.”
That hasn’t stopped him from having fun with it, though; he’s happy to spread his arms out like horny Jesus, sacrificing himself to wipe away our sins. He can have fun—maybe even more fun—approaching the same classic material from new angles. That’s Vegas; that’s his viral performance at NPR’s Tiny Desk. These projects enliven Usher as an artist and create space for him to perform on his own terms. Q-Tip, he says, always tells him that if you live by the applause, you’ll die by the boos.
Usher laughs at the thought. “I don’t believe that. I just want the applause!”
Hunter Harris is a writer based in New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of GQ with the title “Usher’s Vegas Revival”
Photographs by Pari Dukovic
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
For Usher: Hair by Shawn “Shizz” Porter
Skin by Lola Okanlawon
For Keanua Washington and Ashley Williams: Hair by Didbydess
Makeup by Javier Deleon
Tailoring by Yelena Travkina
Produced by Michael Klein at Circadian Pictures
Photographed at Park Mgm and Nomad Las Vegas