MUSIC On top at 25, Usher directs his success with confidence



The former teen star says he believes in his dreams.
By THOR CHRISTENSEN
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Get Usher talking and he sounds less like an R & amp;B singer than a motivational business speaker:
"As an entrepreneur, you've got to empower people."
"You've got to make your image clear to the audience that's buying it."
"If you don't believe in yourself, nobody will."
At the moment, a lack of belief is not one of Usher Raymond's problems. At 25, the former teen star has become one of pop's top brand names, selling more than 8 million copies of his latest album, "Confessions."
Released in March, the CD exploded for two reasons: 1) "Yeah!", the first single, boasted one of the catchiest synthesizer hooks since "When Doves Cry," and 2) fans were eager to hear him dish about his breakup with TLC's Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, who went on the radio to accuse Usher of having an affair.
Seizing a good marketing opportunity, Usher fanned the flames by writing several songs about infidelity, including "Truth Hurts" and "Confessions Part II." In the latter, the narrator infuriates his lover by getting another woman pregnant, but Usher says his lyrics are partly fiction.
"People are always asking me 'Did you go through this?' 'Did you have a child?' But I haven't experienced everything firsthand," he says over the phone from New York. "Some of the songs came from people I've been around. ... Everyone in life is gonna break up, and everyone's gonna make up."
Vindication
The runaway success of "Confessions" is sweet vindication for the Atlanta-based singer. Although he's been a star since 15, critics often dismissed him as a cookie-cutter vocalist and chalked up his fame to his flashy dance moves and stud-muffin persona: In concert, he rarely wears a shirt -- all the better to show off his washboard abs.
"I've always had a sex symbol thing with me, but it always remained about great music," he says. "And I think now people are paying attention and saying, 'This guy Usher is really singing."'
Dancing and singing have been Usher's dream since grade school, when his aunt took him to see New Edition perform in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn.
"I remember the choreography, I remember the lights, I remember the crowd screaming, the excitement. ... I had a horrible seat, but that was one of the highlights of my life, man. It was one of the things that made me want to do this," he says.
Inspired by the concert -- as well as by watching Michael Jackson on TV -- he joined a R & amp;B boy band called the New Beginning. The group fizzled, but Usher kept at it, moving to Atlanta with his manager-mom and signing with LaFace Records after label honcho L.A. Reid saw him at a "Star Search" competition.
Getting busy
By 14, Usher was recording with producer Sean Puffy Combs in New York and viewing life in the fast lane. "My mother wasn't there, and I saw a lot -- an awful lot -- of things in New York City. But I didn't soak up the bad things because my mother didn't raise me to be weak-minded," he says.
Instead, he worked as hard as he could and kept building his self-confidence -- a trait that still rubs some people the wrong way .
"I hear people say, 'He's a little too confident.' Well, I mean, wouldn't you be if nobody believed in your dreams but you?" he says. "How can you believe in your dreams if you don't speak loud? I don't speak arrogantly. I speak confidently."
His Puffy-produced '94 debut, "Usher," wasn't a big hit. But his next two studio albums sold more than 4 million copies each, and he started getting noticed in Hollywood with roles on TV ("Moesha," "American Dreams") and in films "She's All That" and "Light It Up."
More recently, he launched his own film company and record label and is scouting for new stars.

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