Usher on Reworking Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” Advice Michael Jackson Gave Him and Being “Vulnerable” for New Album

While preparing for his Super Bowl halftime performance, Usher achieved another goal: He finished recording his ninth album. Coming Home was released on Friday, two days before he celebrates his 30-year career at the big game.

“Life couldn’t be in a better situation for me right now,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s going pretty great.”

More from The Hollywood Reporter

The album is a 20-track R&B adventure and features collaborations with Latto, Burna Boy, The-Dream and Pheelz, who appears on the current single “Ruin.” Previously released songs include BTS’ Jungkook, 21 Savage, Summer Walker and H.E.R.

Coming Home is Usher’s first independent project, released through his new label Mega with famed music executive L.A. Reid.

Ahead of his Super Bowl performance, the singer talked to THR about his new album, how he reworked Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” to create a new track, the advice that the King of Pop gave him and more.

What was it like flipping Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” for “A-Town Girl”?

It was super cool. I didn’t think he was going to clear it at first, to be honest. But when I finally got the clear, I was like, “This is fire.” There’s these songs and algorithms that work with the world; you might not even know the damn song, but you have heard it before. You’ve heard that feeling. There’s these forever-type records. So “Uptown Girl” is something that worked with “A-Town Girl.” It was the perfect sample that could flip this mentality of this girl who’s just unwavering and she don’t really care about what the fuck else is going on in the world. She cares about where she is and what she feels and what she knows is real. And the places that she goes and the experiences that she has is something like, “Yo, you can try to change an A-Town girl, but you’ll never change an A-Town girl.” Wherever she goes, she’s just going to make it A-Town.

I’m trying to get her to come to Las Vegas, try to get her to come to L.A, [but] they just move a little bit different. They motivate. ATL girls motivate the rest of the girls in the world. You look at even how the models are dressing. I mean, if you’re from Atlanta and you really do know it, you’ll know the difference. But otherwise people will be like, “Oh nah. Those nice curves, everybody has those.” Nah, that’s some A shit. That’s ATL.

On “Bop” you reference a bunch of icons who have passed, including Aaliyah and Michael Jackson. Do you remember having conversations with Michael or getting advice from him?

Yeah. It was an admiration of what I do as an entertainer that he offered me. He didn’t really say a lot. Whenever we had conversations, they were fairly brief, but what he did tell me is he appreciated the fact that I’m a song-and-dance man and the fact that that’s not an easy thing to do. It is celebrated by people who did it and didn’t have a choice when they were back in the earlier days. It was almost as though he was telling me to keep it authentic. And I battle with it, because sometimes I absolutely want to have more support, so I add extra backgrounds and stuff like that, but it actually detaches me from the experience that I want to have with my fans and what I want to offer them. So that’s why I always try to give my all when I’m singing, try to stay away from the technical side of it and keep it as raw and authentic and analog as I possibly can. I do use it to assist me. I don’t use it to assess me.

Usher performs during the Lovers and Friends music festival at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on May 06, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

How long have you been working on this album?

Off and on for the last phase of my life now. I think that phase can’t even be categorized with a year or years because we’ve been in this void between the pandemic and between the shocks of what is happening in the world politically, the shocks of what’s happening in the world spiritually, the shock of what’s happening in the world and trying to figure out how to get back to normal because of the pandemic. I don’t know. I lost track of how long I’ve been working on it to be perfectly honest with you.

In terms of this body of work in crafting it, I’d say for the last year and a half me and L.A. Reid had been working to define [it], and that did come with pulling some music that I had been working on over the past five years. But the focus of this album, I think it really did start when me and L.A. Reid decided to partner through Mega and really start aligning all of the things that work to be the artist that I’ve always wanted to be, and the artist that I’ve worked at being for the last 30 years.

What’s the message you want to deliver with the album?

That it’s never too late to be passionate. It’s never a bad thing to choose love, because love may not always be cookie-cutter and perfect. Sometimes it comes with complications and sometimes it’s literally just life making it cycle and the process that we go through. So the songs, they depict a few different positions that I’ve been in, in my life in relationships, but all dealing with love, man. A bit of it has something to do with coming home and an acceptance that this is intended and that whether I was working with L.A. Reid or I was working with creatives that I worked with in the past musically, maybe I had to go through all of these different experiences to then get to a place where I was confident enough to just release and share.

Usher performs onstage during a taping of iHeartRadio’s Living Black 2023 Block Party in Inglewood, California.

One of the hardest things the album demands is to be vulnerable, especially as a man, a Black man specifically. So it comes with a great deal of, I don’t know, just anxiety and just overthinking at times because you want things to be perfect, especially if people’s expectation is for you to make the big hit record or have the most successful records. You know what I’m saying? You can get caught in that. But the inspiration was just an offering. I’m working with somebody that I love working with and I’m creating things that I really do love and I’m creating from a place of love in a time when I think that there’s a lot of pain in this world. There’s a lot of pain that ain’t got nothing to do with relationships, it’s just pain period.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?

I don’t know if I have one. I do love [new single] “Ruin” because I think that it’s a song that introduced me to a new genre. Every album, I take a risk and I go outside of my space, and it is something that I’m hoping that my fans will follow me in. I love Amapiano [music]. I love Fields as a producer, as an artist.

So we worked on one song, “Coming Home,” and then he played this record for me, “Ruin.” It was actually originally for his album. And I was like, “I really do want to at least sing it to see how I was feeling.” And once I sang it, he was like, “Yo, you really sound great, but can I remain on the record?” I was like, “Of course, man.” I want it for my album and I’m going to treat it with care and make certain that it has the type of treatment. And I feel like my fans could really connect with this.

The music video is great too… 

Thank you, man. Appreciate it, man. And my daughter [who appears in the video] is a star, dude. I don’t know what I’m going to do, man. She ruined me. All dads that have little girls, they know what I mean. They ruin you, man. All the things you said you weren’t going to do; “I’m a super tough dad. I’m a super tough man.” They ruin you, dude.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter