Usher In A New Era

As 10,000 mourners gathered in a cavernous televangelist church in suburban Atlanta last Thursday to pay their last respects to TLC's Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes, Arista Records chief L. A. Reid was left to ponder what would become of his musical family. There, in the next aisle, was Whitney Houston, whose personal troubles have eclipsed her talents of late. P. Diddy, in the middle of severing ties with the label, was a no-show. Then there were the two surviving members of TLC, once the biggest-selling girl group, sobbing over the loss of their trio mate. As TLC's Rozonda (Chilli) Thomas wept, her boyfriend wrapped a comforting arm around her. That arm belongs to the one person Reid can count on for solace himself these days: Usher.

Reid didn't have much of a honeymoon at Arista. No sooner had he taken over the struggling label from its ousted founder, Clive Davis, than Davis launched his own label, J Records, with the biggest new act of 2001, Alicia Keys. Reid was left to mop up the red ink at Arista--and fend off rumors that the label's most profitable star was at death's door, following her emaciated appearance at a Michael Jackson tribute last September (reports of Houston's demise were greatly exaggerated). Then came true tragedy--Lopes's death in a car crash in Honduras late last month. The lyric from TLC's "Waterfalls," inscribed on Lopes's white casket, seemed to reflect Reid's predicament: "Dreams are hopeless aspirations in hopes of coming true..."

But as Reid, 45, settles into his sophomore year at the helm of the BMG flagship label, he's finding more than a few things to be hopeful about. Four of Arista's top performers--Houston, Toni Braxton, Santana and Aretha Franklin--are working on albums that could hit the street later this year. Acts that Reid brought over from his indie LaFace Records when he joined Arista in July 2000, including Pink and OutKast, are red hot. And then there's the sweet-faced 23-year-old from Chattanooga, Tenn., with the wispy voice and Michael Jackson moves who goes by first name only.

With a 50-city U.S. tour set to begin this week in Seattle, a multiplatinum album still generating hit singles and a freshly minted Grammy for best male R&B vocalist, Usher stands poised to replace R. Kelly as the king of R&B. "Usher was 13 when I met him, and he just had this amazing talent you saw the moment he hit the stage. Even though he was a kid when he debuted, he didn't get caught up in the teen-pop thing. You always saw him as a serious artist--no bubble gum,'' says Reid.

Of course, it hasn't hurt that Kelly, who's on the indie Jive Records label, has been an untouchable since a videotape surfaced earlier this year allegedly showing the king having sex with (and urinating on) a 14-year-old girl. The album that Kelly recorded with rapper Jay-Z, "The Best of Both Worlds," tanked after its March 19 release, when Jay-Z pulled back on all promotion, including a planned summer tour. Dr. Dre has taken numbers he recorded with Kelly off his upcoming album.

If Kelly is the sexed-up Jerry Lee Lewis of his generation, then Usher is a funked-out Ricky Nelson. The tracks on Usher's latest album "8701," including the Grammy-winning ballad "U Remind Me" and the danceable "U Don't Have To," have a flavor far different from the blatant eroticism of such Kelly hits as "Bump 'N' Grind'' and "Feeling on Yo' Booty.'' "Usher's the kid you don't mind your lady or daughters listening to,'' says Stephen Hill, vice president of music programming for BET. "He's got this innocent thing about him that makes you like him instantly."

The kid with a penchant for diamond studs and oversize sunglasses grew up surrounded by the ole-school sounds his mother, Jonetta, loved. "Growing up in Tennessee, there wasn't a lot to do other than listen to music,'' says Usher Raymond. "My mom would play Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway all the time and I would sing along and make up dances." When his mom realized Usher could hold a note with the best of them, she signed him up for a local talent show. He won, and kept on winning. His mom packed up the family and moved to Atlanta, which was fast becoming a hotbed for black music. There Usher was discovered by Reid and his LaFace Records partner Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds.

Reid has been grooming the young singer ever since. Usher's first album, produced by Sean (then Puffy, now P. Diddy) Combs, was a flop. But the next one, "My Way,'' produced by Jermaine Dupri, sold more than 3 million copies. Usher embarked on his third album just as Reid was moving to Arista. Reid wasn't as involved with it as he would have liked. Just before the album was slated for release, Reid had a listen--and sent Usher back to the studio with a new set of producers. Shelving an album that's almost completed is something record companies almost never do--especially companies in difficult straits. During the first months of Reid's tenure at Arista, sales had fallen 20 percent. But Reid's gamble with Usher paid off: "8701,'' a near-perfect mix of hip-hop and R&B, has dominated the charts since its release last August and has sold nearly 7 million copies.

Usher's success has gone a long way toward setting Reid apart from his legendary predecessor at Arista. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm living in the shadow of all the great music executives before me--not just Clive,'' Reid says, a little testily. "I mean, you're always coming after somebody, trying to make your mark. But we have the talent to keep Arista at the top and thriving." Luckily for Reid, his honeymoon is finally beginning.