"Ustin!" Usher and Justin Bieber are hanging out in a quiet corner of Milk Studios in West Hollywood on a break from a Billboard cover shoot when a stylist enters and utters the SNL-worthy gaffe above. A silence falls over the room and a look of mock horror registers on the stars\' faces—before laughter breaks out.
It\'s an understandable slip, as the pair are linked in the public\'s mind for good reason: the famed R&B icon took the then-14-year-old Canadian budding singer under his wing, mentoring him into becoming one of the world\'s most recognizable superstars. Usher and Bieber also collaborate creatively, having joined forces on a number of hit songs. Their most recent duet, "The Christmas Song," on Bieber\'s holiday album, Under the Mistletoe, helped propel sales of the album to 1.2 million in the US—qualifying Bieber as a finalist for Billboard\'s Top Male Artist this year. And both of their hotly anticipated forthcoming new albums are said to contain new collaborations with each other.
Seeing the two interact in the same room, their vibe proves playful but protective. Usher still embodies the role of big bro—a lighthearted question about Bieber\'s rapping skills elicits a word of caution: "Easy"—and he clearly gets a kick out of Bieber\'s mugging for the camera. Born entertainers, neither can stop himself from dancing on set and singing along to whatever comes blasting out of the speakers, from Michael Jackson hits to Usher\'s own songs. The world has seen both Usher and Bieber grow from boys to men onstage—during different eras, of course. Now 18, Bieber\'s facial features have sharpened, and his famous forward-brushed swoop of hair has been restyled (in a move that\'s said to be the costliest cut—dolls with Bieber\'s old hair had to be recalled, to the tune of $100,000). The teen idol\'s music has also gotten tougher now: the debut single off his forthcoming album, Believe, works an urban beat and reveals a bolder hip-hop MC side. At age 33, meanwhile, Usher is branching out as well. His upcoming Looking For Myself CD, his seventh, boasts a mix of R&B and elecro-soul that he calls "revolutionary pop," and delves deeply into club grooves on tunes such as the roof-raising "Scream." The album\'s first salvo, "Climax," produced by hitmaker Diplo (M.I.A., Beyoncé), takes the sexy tenor into unexpected sonic territory, his soaring falsetto layered over simmering beats.
RAY ROGERS: You\'re both performing on this year\'s Billboard Music Awards. What can we expect?
USHER: It\'s an unveiling for both of us, and I\'m excited that we\'re going to be able to do it together. Since Justin\'s first album we\'ve been piggybacking—brother to brother, creator to creator. We\'ve always managed to come out around the same time and show support for one another.
Each of you have recently taken your music in new directions. As an artist, how do you push yourself to take risks?
JUSTIN BIEBER: I don\'t want to lose my young fans, but I also want to mature and develop. I always keep one foot out of my comfort zone, trying new things and experimenting—if you don\'t, people will get bored. Seeing the smiles on people\'s faces and how I affect them when I perform makes me want to give them the absolute best experience they can possibly get.
USHER: I\'m happy that Justin knows that without me even saying that. You really do want to make sure that you bring along fans that have always been there, but make sure that you grow and chart new territory. Even seven albums in, I still try to be innovative, blaze new trails, but allow people to come along on the journey. It\'s all about striving for greatness and offering the best that I have. It\'s no different than an athlete, or a boxer: standing in front of the person trying to tear his head off, he has to give his all to make it out of that ring.
BIEBER: Usher played me a lot of new songs in the studio the other night, and I\'d never heard anything like them before. That\'s what I love: He could just come out with the R&B-pop records people expect, but this approach will prove even more powerful.
Justin, with your new single, "Boyfriend," you incorporate hip-hop beats and rap. How did that come about?
BIEBER: I want people to know that I\'m really about the music, and not just putting out songs. This was the perfect first single where I pushed myself, but it wasn\'t too "out there" and it had a catchy hook.