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Usher: More than just 'U'

Usher: "This album was my coming of age record."  

By Meriah Doty

(CNN) -- He doesn't think of himself as just a singer. R&B star Usher calls himself an "entertainer." And he's finally packed up his bags and hit the road for his 2002 tour.

The tour was long in coming. Late last year, the singer dislocated his shoulder, which set back the entire operation several months. Usher waited until he was back to normal before embarking on the series of live dates.

He explains, "It doesn't make sense for me to stop just to start back up again. Now that I'm fully rehabilitated, I'm ready to go out there."

One reason he waited is because he puts on an energetic show. Accompanied by seven dancers, Usher takes the lead in a choreographed program that includes a dance-only sequence and moments of tribute.

"You're going to have a great understanding of my evolution with music and what it is I've listened to in the last few years," he says of his 8701 Evolution tour.

If radio play and CD sales can gauge who will show up, Usher doesn't have much to worry about. The 23-year-old has become one of the biggest draws in the country.

Making hits, winning a Grammy

'U Don't Have to Call', the video from Arista Records' artist, Usher

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Three singles from his "8701" album, released last year, have made Billboard's Top Five. "U Remind Me" and "U Got It Bad" reached No. 1, while "U Don't Have To Call" peaked at No. 3.

"8701" has sold more than 3.5 million copies.

But Tennessee native Usher Raymond has proven it takes more than just a strategically placed "U" to make a hit. Getting the album made is one thing; keeping it on top is a job in itself.

"I'm on the telephone with Arista Records every day keeping that record out. You have stay on them [to promote it]. ... Everything is a priority from radio play and interviews to television performances," he says.

Usher: "In my opinion the world is in need of real soul music."  

"This album has longevity. One reason is versatility. There's a record for every situation from the club to the hot radio joint -- all of the songs have the feeling of a format that fit into radio, live performance, video, all of it."

And he works hard on himself. He rehearses and practices constantly, polishing the smooth vocals and tight dance moves that have made him a sex symbol. He says military-style training keeps him in shape. "It's cardio. I don't lift weights," he says.

He has even tried his hand at acting. His credits include 1998 teen horror flick "The Faculty," and 2001 western "Texas Rangers."

Losing a friend

His tour starts up at perhaps an awkward time for Usher, given the death of TLC rapper Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes two weeks ago. Usher and Lopes were "good friends," according to his publicist Simone Smalls.

"This is a sad moment for all of Lisa's friends and family," she adds.

Usher was in Los Angeles preparing for the tour, but took time to travel to Lithonia, Georgia, for Lopes' funeral on May 2, Smalls confirms.

Usher admits to dating TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, but Smalls would not comment on how the couple is coping.

"Yes, we are dating," the performer says. Though, he adds, "It's not like a marriage, honestly."

A return to soul

Usher recognizes that his popularity -- along with artists such as Alicia Keyes, Craig David and Ashanti -- signifies a comeback for R&B.

A return to soul

"In my opinion the world is in need of real soul music. I think that hip-hop had a major influence all through the '90s. But from 2000 and up, R&B will have more of a power and presence," he says.

He lists Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye among his favorite artists. "In the '70s R&B and soul music was at its best ... you had great artists from the Motown period, it was an overall movement. I think it's recurring right now. [We are] only [in] the early stages of it."

Usher acknowledges there has been "great talk" about him playing Marvin Gaye in a biographical film. But a deal has yet to be slated.

Meanwhile, he's patient about his growing success. "In order to earn your keep you have to grow into it. It didn't happen overnight for Michael Jackson."

Which is why he refuses to limit his description of himself. "It's not just dance moves," Usher says. "It's entertainment. Period."




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