When Justin Bieber met Usher at age 14, it was a lucky break for both parties. Four years later, what’s in the cards for each of them? On the eve of their respective new releases, Billboard sat down with iconic mentor and superstar protégé, each of whom will perform at the 2012 Billboard Music Awards.
“Ustin!” Usher and Justin Bieber are hanging out in a quiet corner of Milk Studios in West Hollywood on a break from a Billboard cover shoot when a stylist enters and utters the SNL-worthy gaffe above. A silence falls over the room and a look of mock horror registers on the stars’ faces—before laughter breaks out.
It’s an understandable slip, as the pair are linked in the public’s mind for good reason: the famed R&B icon took the then-14-year-old Canadian budding singer under his wing, mentoring him into becoming one of the world’s most recognizable superstars. Usher and Bieber also collaborate creatively, having joined forces on a number of hit songs. Their most recent duet, “The Christmas Song,” on Bieber’s holiday album, Under the Mistletoe, helped propel sales of the album to 1.2 million in the US—qualifying Bieber as a finalist for Billboard’s Top Male Artist this year. And both of their hotly anticipated forthcoming new albums are said to contain new collaborations with each other.
Seeing the two interact in the same room, their vibe proves playful but protective. Usher still embodies the role of big bro—a lighthearted question about Bieber’s rapping skills elicits a word of caution: “Easy”—and he clearly gets a kick out of Bieber’s mugging for the camera. Born entertainers, neither can stop himself from dancing on set and singing along to whatever comes blasting out of the speakers, from Michael Jackson hits to Usher’s own songs.
The world has seen both Usher and Bieber grow from boys to men onstage—during different eras, of course. Now 18, Bieber’s facial features have sharpened, and his famous forward-brushed swoop of hair has been restyled (in a move that’s said to be the costliest cut—dolls with Bieber’s old hair had to be recalled, to the tune of $100,000). The teen idol’s music has also gotten tougher now: the debut single off his forthcoming album, Believe, works an urban beat and reveals a bolder hip-hop MC side. At age 33, meanwhile, Usher is branching out as well. His upcoming Looking For Myself CD, his seventh, boasts a mix of R&B and elecro-soul that he calls “revolutionary pop,” and delves deeply into club grooves on tunes such as the roof-raising “Scream.” The album’s first salvo, “Climax,” produced by hitmaker Diplo (M.I.A., Beyoncé), takes the sexy tenor into unexpected sonic territory, his soaring falsetto layered over simmering beats.
RAY ROGERS: You’re both performing on this year’s Billboard Music Awards. What can we expect?
USHER: It’s an unveiling for both of us, and I’m excited that we’re going to be able to do it together. Since Justin’s first album we’ve been piggybacking—brother to brother, creator to creator. We’ve always managed to come out around the same time and show support for one another.
Each of you have recently taken your music in new directions. As an artist, how do you push yourself to take risks?
JUSTIN BIEBER: I don’t want to lose my young fans, but I also want to mature and develop. I always keep one foot out of my comfort zone, trying new things and experimenting—if you don’t, people will get bored. Seeing the smiles on people’s faces and how I affect them when I perform makes me want to give them the absolute best experience they can possibly get.
USHER: I’m happy that Justin knows that without me even saying that. You really do want to make sure that you bring along fans that have always been there, but make sure that you grow and chart new territory. Even seven albums in, I still try to be innovative, blaze new trails, but allow people to come along on the journey. It’s all about striving for greatness and offering the best that I have. It’s no different than an athlete, or a boxer: standing in front of the person trying to tear his head off, he has to give his all to make it out of that ring.
BIEBER: Usher played me a lot of new songs in the studio the other night, and I’d never heard anything like them before. That’s what I love: He could just come out with the R&B-pop records people expect, but this approach will prove even more powerful.
Justin, with your new single, “Boyfriend,” you incorporate hip-hop beats and rap. How did that come about?
BIEBER: I want people to know that I’m really about the music, and not just putting out songs. This was the perfect first single where I pushed myself, but it wasn’t too “out there” and it had a catchy hook.
How does Justin rate as an MC?
USHER: He’s always been a dope MC. C’mon. Easy. “Boyfriend” was really the defining moment; it became No. 1 everywhere, which is what dreams are made of. Both of us are being modest about what our journeys have been in terms of songwriting: Justin really has participated in every writing session—that’s amazing. It’s easy to just dial something in, but if you make the music authentic, people feel connected to you as an artist from the beginning.
BIEBER: At the end of the day, I could get a bunch of writers to put the whole album together, but as Usher said, people need to sense the authenticity. It’s not about me rapping—people can just feel that I’m having fun on the record.
Pop music is very rooted in the dance/club world right now, and people love to lose themselves on the dance floor. How do you cut loose?
USHER: Honestly, I might go to a strip club, a rave, or a festival—but he’s not able to do that yet.
BIEBER: I’m in the studio every night. I really don’t have time to cut loose!
USHER: For me, it’s about places that I travel. When I’m in a foreign country, I listen to the radio—I want to know what they’re listening to. Going to South America, Australia, and Africa and just trying to understand their cultures, that spills into your music.
BIEBER: We’re world artists. Things in China aren’t necessarily the same as here, and you want to have that understanding.
What’s the most fun thing you guys have done together?
BIEBER: We go go-karting a lot. I’ma blow up Usher’s spot a little bit: The first time, he asked for the fastest car, so he won—but the next time, I asked for the fastest car.
Speaking of cars, Justin, you drove here today in a pretty wild-looking ride.
BIEBER: Usher and my manager got me this electric car called a Fisker and presented it to me on Ellen. That was crazy! I had no idea. Then I sent it to West Coast Customs: They chromed it out and put lights on the bottom so it looks like a spaceship. I get chased no matter what, so I might as well look cool doing it!
What the funniest thing you’ve read about yourselves?
USHER: That Justin had a baby—that was hilarious! It was like the “Billie Jean” story happening all over again. I remember being like, “Yo, I told you be careful!”
BIEBER: The craziest thing I heard about Usher was just a few weeks ago there was an #RIPUsher hash tag on Twitter.
USHER: That’s funny?
BIEBER: It was funny to me ’cause I knew you weren’t actually dead.
USHER: This has turned into comedy and tragedy.
Speaking of tragic, are you surprised at the crazy amount of attention your hairstyles receive in the media?
USHER: That’s an underground joke between us. I remember Justin would never cut his hair; he was just shaggy. Sure enough, now you can’t open a Teen Beat or even see a commercial and not see that hairstyle. Ultimately, fashion is about branding.
BIEBER: And how you feel.
USHER: Yes, you brand something based on how you feel—your expression for the moment.
Obviously, you guys have a mentor relationship in addition to a friendship. What do you learn from each other?
USHER: I’ve told him you’ve got to study the greats if you want a career that lasts forever.
BIEBER: He takes me back to Michael Jackson, but also Fred Astaire and all these other people that I probably would’ve never looked up. And Usher’s always told me, “You need to work hard, but also play hard. Strive to be the best, but have fun doing it.”
USHER: Justin wants everything to be perfect. When his voice was changing, he was really hard on himself; I saw similarities in how when I was his age—I lost my voice completely and had to fight my way back through it. At the time I told him, “Yo, man, what’s the worst that can happen? You go out there and hit a bad note? Make it a part of the show.” After having a career that’s spanned as long as mine, I’ve learned that it’s great to be in a moment. That’s the coolest part: the more you live in the moment, the greater it is for the moment.
BIEBER: What’s great is that in Usher, I have a mentor that’s been doing it so long and has been successful in everything that he’s done. He’s made some mistakes, too, but he’s learned from them, so he can tell me what to do and what not to do.
You have collaborated on a number of songs in the past. Are there any duets on the new albums?
BIEBER: Yes, there are.
USHER: It’s like when you think about artists like Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney working together: people so enjoyed seeing talents like that come together, it’s almost become a staple to make that kind of record now. When we record together, we just want to have fun and allow ourselves to look in each other’s worlds. I’m looking to be influenced by him: I’ve taught and given him some perspective, but the student really does become the teacher, in a way.
Can you say how you are inspired by what Justin does?
USHER: He always makes me feel like I’m old! Anytime he comes around me, he’s messing with me about my phone, or how slow I type.
BIEBER: He didn’t even know what iChat was!
USHER: I love it, though. He keeps me on my feet. The one thing I do see in him is the passion and the determination to really tell an incredible story and articulate himself as an artist. Whether Justin is up or down, I want to be that person who he knows will be around for him no matter what: “Whether the world is singing your song or not, you got a brother that rocks with you in me.” All great things in life happen because of a family structure, in some way—this is a dynasty, a movement, a magic that will be successful because we both love what we do and share that bond. We started that way, and it’s been that way to this day; that can’t be replaced.