Rehearsing on a Manhattan soundstage for an upcoming BET performance, 25-year-old pop star Usher is having a ball. He's casual-Friday'ed out in a camouflage Braves cap, faded jeans, and a T-shirt depicting a presurgery, Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. He improvises a few fluid, MJ-influenced dance moves, but pretty soon the band launches into the title track from his latest album, Confessions (which came out a few days before the rehearsal), and it's time to get serious. ''All this talk about 'confessions,''' Usher says coyly from the stage. ''What is it about? What happened? I wrote a song about it. Like to hear it? Here it go...''
As Usher's sly stage banter hints, the release of Confessions has been marred by an ugly buzz of controversy. Oh, well. At the time of this run-through, the album is on its way to selling an astonishing 1.1 million copies its first week -- by far the biggest debut by an R&B artist in SoundScan history. Confessions' lead single, ''Yeah!'' has been a staple on Billboard's Hot 100, dominating the top spot for seven weeks. But despite a disc that validates more than a decade of hard work, the only thing anyone -- from prime-time radio jocks to magazine journalists -- seems to want to talk about is the recent stormy end of his two-year romance with TLC's Rozonda ''Chilli'' Thomas and the rash of nasty rumors about just what went wrong.
The basic details are public knowledge: On Feb. 16, Chilli announced on an Atlanta radio station that Usher had committed ''the ultimate no-no'' and their relationship was kaput. Then came whisperings that his infidelity had spawned a love child, rumors helped along by less-than-cryptic Confessions lyrics like ''My chick on the side says she got one on the way.'' (Usher denies the baby rumor.)
This sort of prerelease PR would leave most pop stars cowering behind their publicists. But strangely enough, Usher -- who's always been known as a polite, modest, and, let's face it, dull celebrity -- seems to be embracing the negative attention. He freely admits to cheating on Chilli, saying that ''with so many women available [to you] at 25 years old, you're going to make mistakes.'' And though he's a bit fuzzy on the details, Usher has been surprisingly forthcoming about the whole, um, affair. The breakup ''is my yin and yang, my comedy and tragedy,'' he says in his usual measured tone. And that openness has spurred what might be the harshest rumor of all: that he's shamelessly hyping his dirty laundry in order to sell records.
If that's true, it's working. ''This buzz is good for 500,000 [sold],'' laughs New York radio jock and VH1 host Wendy Williams, who helped fuel the speculation by bringing up the then-little-known baby gossip outside the Soul Train Music Awards in March. As Usher's Arista A&R rep, Mark Pitts, puts it: ''He always played it safe, said the right thing. Now he's showing that he's human.'' Pitts doesn't believe Usher is exploiting lost love to move units, but he acknowledges that ''it helped. I won't say it was half our sales, but it definitely played a part. It made him interesting.''