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Body and soul

Usher must have a big freezer for all that ice.

Hip-hop's biggest male star and sex symbol rocks more diamonds than Tiffany's. Around his neck, on his fingers, in his ears, maybe even in his socks. Those fab abs only add to this 14-karat heartthrob's mystique.

Word on the street is the 25-year-old singer-dancer born Usher Raymond IV has snatched the glove from Michael Jackson. With the fire being fueled by three chart-topping singles _ a yearning Burn, the dance-pop platter Yeah! and the baby-mama drama anthem Confessions Part II _ from the 4-million-selling Confessions disc, he's expected to dominate the Grammy Awards nominations in December.

Usher doesn't need anybody to help him find his seat. Snugly installed in the sales charts for the sixth straight month, Confessions and its ingeniously crafted modern R&B sound is a mainstay of at least four radio formats. But even before the disc became a thriller, Usher was an international pop idol who'd snared two Grammys, appeared in movies and on the cover of countless magazines, and endured a breakup with Chilli from the R&B group TLC.

"A natural evolution'

"Life's lookin' good," the charismatic singer said in an understatement while on the tour that brings him to Tampa on Friday. "I have my mind on my money and my money on my mind," he added, quoting Dr. Dre.

Usher has a few theories about his success. "I know why this record was a hit. It was a natural evolution: The older you get, the more relaxed and comfortable you get. And I think that came out in the music this time. Parts of the record were autobiographical, but I draw from my friends' experiences, too. People can relate to that. And I had the right team around me."

No kidding. Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and raised in Atlanta, Usher got his break when LaFace Records co-founder Antonio "L.A." Reid caught a hometown talent show in 1993. Further connections were made with monster hitmakers Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Jermaine Dupri and Clive Davis. A slot on Janet Jackson's "Velvet Rope" tour and roles on Brandy's Moesha sitcom and in the 1998 teen horror flick The Faculty solidified his position. Last year he was Punk'd by Ashton Kutcher.

But Confessions, with its title track about a guy who owns up to his girlfriend that he fathered a baby while "creepin' wit' " another chick, put Usher through the roof. He says the song was based mostly on problems not his.

"I don't have a child, but it was partly drawn from personal experiences," he said. "You have to be willing to take a risk (when writing songs). I felt maybe I was telling too much, maybe people might not be able to handle this stuff. It could be negatively looked at. I've always tried to keep my personal life under wraps."

The whole package

On stage for 90 minutes, Usher is well-wrapped in a variety of outfits, many of which end up at his feet as his abs get a showing. An athlete who break-dances, gyrates and sometimes even outdoes his videos, Usher is enjoying some of the best box office receipts of a generally slow concert season.

"He's doing unusually good business in a scary summer," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a weekly that covers the touring industry. "A lot of times, good record sales don't necessarily translate to huge ticket sales, but they do here. People are genuinely enthusiastic about this artist, and the ticket prices are relatively conservative for such a popular attraction."

How enthusiastic? An Ebony magazine profile gushed: "Usher's not the average Brother. He's today's hottest teenage heartthrob, a young man who could look cool taking his yo-yo or his Porsche for a spin. Maybe that's why everybody loves Usher Raymond IV. The ladies say he's sexy because he's the perfect mix of maturity and sophistication, youth and innocence. Fellows say he's cool because of his laid-back nature."

Usher, following the old Hollywood maxim about hair and teeth, is in for the long haul. With a daily workout routine that involves hundreds of crunches, he keeps himself in tip-top condition.

"I have a nutritionist, and I keep to a very strict diet," he said. "You know, I take vitamins, ginseng and echinacea. Normally it's chicken, fish _ and sometimes, sometimes, maybe on an off day, beef. But mainly on this tour I'll be doing chicken, fish, light fruit, something like maybe cantaloupe or watermelon. Salads, dark salads, not light salads like your romaine lettuce, but a mixed green salad, something like that. Spinach, broccoli, no carrots, no corn. As I said, a very strict diet."

Something for everyone

When an album sells in the multimillions and the artist is wallpapered on radio and video channels, it means he has crossed over from a niche audience into something all-encompassing. Usher explains how that happened to him.

"We very consciously put something for everyone on (the album). Like, the older generation can respect the melodies and vocal ability: a little Marvin Gaye, a little Isleys, Michael Jackson, James Brown as well as Prince. The kids love the dancing. And the groove is there. You can dance to it. And there are ballads and slow numbers."

Even at the center of a show-biz tsunami, Usher isn't immune to politics in this election year. Though unwilling to take a more definite stand, Usher has a suggestion for his fans.

"I encourage a democratic vote. In terms of voting and making young people aware of their power, I encourage it. Get out there and vote."

His toned body only add to Usher's sex appeal. "Life's lookin' good," he says.

During his 90 minutes on stage, Usher is well-wrapped in a variety of outfits, many of which end up at his feet.

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