NEW YORK — Usher, the 22-year-old R&B sensation, is comfortably slumped in a long, black limousine outside Manhattan's trendy Chambers Hotel when Arista Records President Antonio "L.A." Reid literally stops traffic to knock on the window and grab a seat next to one of his most popular artists.
Usher, decked out in a sleeveless T-shirt and baggy jeans, both earlobes lanced with diamond studs, is rushing off to LaGuardia Airport to keep on top of a jam-packed schedule. He is on a whirlwind promotional tour to tout his latest album, "8701," a title that refers to 1987 and 2001, the bookend years so far of this young man's skyrocketing career. The disc is due in stores Tuesday and there's much work to do--including the impromptu street-side meeting with Reid.
The label chief wants to talk about Usher's No. 1 single, "U Remind Me," this summer's premier love anthem with its sing-song chorus and slinky synthesizer refrain. Note to the hip-hop nation: Sweet soul music is back.
"I want to do the remix video and I want to do it really fast," says Reid, resplendent in a cream-colored suit, as he pops a CD into the limo's sound system and turns the volume way, way up. "I want you to hear this thing."
When you're Usher Raymond IV, a squeaky-clean teen idol with a chocolaty-rich singing voice and handsome, hunky looks, clearly some matters just can't wait. Usher knows the challenge of establishing the broad, lasting appeal of Michael Jackson or Marvin Gaye.
No matter that he backs up his cool image with stylish dance moves and an energetic live performance. Or that his previous album, 1998's "My Way," sold more than 7 million copies worldwide.
These days, Usher needs to work harder than ever to show that he's not just yesterday's fad. He is booked through the end of the year with tour dates, rehearsals, TV specials and personal appearances.
There's a building buzz about "8701," already a No. 1 hit in England, where it was released weeks earlier. A canny mix of upbeat, Caribbean-tinged rhythms and melodic, soaring vocals, it's a happy medium for music fans who have a slight sweet tooth for boy groups like 'N Sync but crave something a little edgier and more international-sounding.
The momentum is building in the U.S. too. At the same time Reid is blasting the bombastic remix of "U Remind Me" (which features cameos by rapper Method Man and vocalist Blu Cantrell), the original version can be heard pulsing from more than one car stereo out on the street.
While Reid sings along, raises his hands and sways to the music in the limo, Usher remains quiet and motionless. As the track fades, he asks his boss to step out of the car for a private discussion.
When he returns, I ask him what he talked about with Reid. "I told him I'm not into it," Usher says. He pauses, calming himself before continuing. "Basically, our conversation is always constructive. I tell him what I think he could do to have better communication with me. This record was done, and I wasn't in the loop. I don't play like that. I'm in control of my career. This is my project. My name is on this, not only as an artist but as an executive producer. And that includes remixes."
With that, we glide off to LaGuardia, where Usher is catching a plane to his next appointment, a performance at a radio station in Toronto.
Control has always been elusive in the music industry, and it may be getting harder all the time. Usher delayed an earlier version of his new album in the spring when he discovered some songs had leaked to the music-swapping Internet site Napster. He went back into the studio to record additional material. He carries two silver Motorola two-way pagers, both for business. "I work hard to work harder," he says.
Fortunately, hard work comes relatively easily to a young man who got his first record deal at age 13 and never looked back. A familiar face in the church choir from early childhood and on the talent-show circuit in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., he was signed by Reid in 1993 to LaFace Records, an Atlanta-based label that is now part of Arista.
"There was a look in his eyes when I met him at 13 years old," Reid says. "And that look said if you intend to associate yourself with the next major superstar, you'd better associate yourself with me. And whenever you have someone who is that dedicated and that committed to their career, it's contagious."
Besides his music success, Usher somehow found time to squeeze in a sideline career as an actor. After a two-year recurring role as Brandy's boyfriend, Jeremy, on the sitcom "Moesha," he appeared in a string of teen flicks, including "The Faculty" and "She's All That."
Calling his own shots has always been a priority for Usher. He says the instinct derives in part from his close relationship with his mother, Jonnetta Patton, who is also his manager.
"When I was a child," he says, "my mother always gave me the freedom to whatever the hell it was I wanted to do. That's where it started."