Usher’s latest album Looking 4 Myself hits stores today, powered by the chart-topping single “Climax.” The song—which has been in heavy rotation around the Complex office since it came out—was produced by Diplo and written by Elijah Blake, a young R&B artist formerly known as Redd StyleZ.
You may not know his name yet, but just remember where you heard it first. Now signed to Def Jam, Blake’s currently working on his own album with production by No I.D., Salaam Remi, T-Minus, Happy Perez, Pop & Oak, Fuego, and Diplo. Behind every great song is a great story, and this one’s no exception. So read on to find out how Blake’s first-ever session with one of his idols led to “Climax.”
As told to Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
The making of Usher's "Climax"
“I visited L.A. on a writing trip and two things made me say ‘OK, I'm gonna move here.’ First of all, the hotel bill was like $12,000 and I was like ‘Oh hell no.’ And the second thing was that I was only supposed to be doing some small sessions and they just booked a couple extra days in case something popped off. And bro, I kid you not—just from me going into sessions a lot of things happened through word of mouth.
“The way L.A. works is there’s a big studio, let’s say Westlake for example. So one room could be booked out for me and working in the next room is Mary J. Blige and in the next room is someone else, for example, Mariah Carey. So, people pass by doors and they hear things and they’ll say, ‘Who’s in that room?’ Then they hear it and say ‘This guy named Redd was in there just going in.’ So then eventually some of these execs and managers of these artists were coming to me like, ‘While you’re here, let’s meet, let’s talk, and through that I ended up getting a session with Mary J. Bilige. I went from writing songs hoping that the artists would hear them to being in the studio with them. And then the next thing I know I was on a plane because Mark Pitts had played a song for Usher. He was like ‘I think this kid is the future.’
I got a phone call—it was night time and I was half asleep—and it was like, ‘I need you to get on a plane and go to New York.’ And I was like, ‘For what? Does it have to be tomorrow?' They said ‘Yes.’ I said ‘For who?’ And they said ‘Usher.’ And I was like, ‘Huh??! You got the right number?
“I met Mark Pitts through an artist named Juwan Harris. I ended up doing some songs with Jim Jonsin for Juwan and Mark Pitts ended up hearing then and saying, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’ After that he pulled me aside. He was like, ‘You know what your thing is?’ The reason that every writer and every artist is successful is they know what they have to offer. When I listen to you what I love about you is you’re able to take the lingo and certain cool and quirky things that people say in the streets and put them to a melody and make it so everybody feels like they can sing it. The only other person I hear doing that is Bruno Mars—and even he doesn’t have the street terminology. That’s like your niche, to take street terminology and cool little sayings and incorporate them into pop culture and not make them sound so aggressive and hard to where people are like, ‘I don’t know if my kids want to hear that.’ Mark was like ‘That’s your thing.’
“Anyway Usher wanted to do some new stuff this time around. So I got a phone call—it was night time and I was half asleep—and it was like, ‘I need you to get on a plane and go to New York.’ And I was like, ‘For what? Does it have to be tomorrow?' They said, ‘Yes.’ I said ‘For who?’ And they said ‘Usher.’ And I was like, ‘Huh??! You got the right number? Are you calling the right person?’ Cause for me it’s like Michael Jackson then Usher, and when Michael was gone I was like, I have to meet him. I didn’t get that chance to rub shoulders with my icon.
“So I was packing, and it was supposed to be for a two-day session, and I got on the plane, got there—I'm late, and Usher’s already there. And as I'm walking in Usher’s stepping out the room and just as humble as can be. He's like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? I'm Usher.’ And I'm like, ‘I know who the hell you are—do you know who I am? Do you even know why I'm supposed to be here?’ The whole time on the plane I was like, ‘I'm gonna embarrass myself. He's not gonna know who I am. He's gonna be like, ‘What the hell are you doing in this session?’ I was thinking Mark PItts is just trying to look out for me and he's gonna have to introduce me in the session as I go in.
So I sit there and Usher goes to talk on the phone and when he gets back in the room, Usher looks at me just like I thought it was gonna be. He says ‘What are you guys doing here?’ And me and my composer go “Uh uh uh uh....” And I end up saying, like, ‘Um, well, Mark Pitts told me to show up here for the session to write with you.’ And he was like, ‘You’re supposed to say, We’re here to make history, man!’ And he was like ha-ha. And we was like, ‘That wasn’t funny man. We thought we were about to get kicked out.’ He was like, ‘Nah, we here to make history man.’ I was like, Cool. And he was like, ‘Once you say that from the beginning and that’s the goal, that’s what it’s gonna be.’
“So when we got to work with Usher, he was saying ‘I've gotten so much success from the pop world recently and I can’t just leave them hanging, but my real fan base is from the urban world and from what I've been able to accomplish in R&B. On this album I want to be able to please everybody.’ He was so successful with [songs like ‘O.M.G.’] and the R&B people were like, What about us? So I had like the hardest task—how do I please both of those audiences? Honestly when he was telling me that I was like, Hell if I know, cause that sounded difficult as hell.
I've gotten so much success from the pop world recently and I can’t just leave them hanging, but my real fan base is from the urban world and from what I've been able to accomplish in R&B. On this album I want to be able to please everybody.
“So he plays me some of the stuff he's done and then Diplo is sitting there and I didn’t even know that was Diplo, cause I had never seen him. He was talking and I was like, ‘Who’s that...?’ I thought, maybe Usher's experimenting cause I don’t even know who these guys are; I don’t feel so weird cause they are new guys too. So then Diplo is like, ‘What’s your name?’ And when I told him he was like, ‘Oh, I've heard of you.’ And I was like, ‘What’s your name?’ And he was like, ‘Diplo.’ And I was like ‘Ohhhh.’ This shit should have been on a TV show, cause I was like, ‘I heard of you too, man.’
“Usher was so focused on, like, bridging the gap that he was like, anything that was a good song he would say, like, ‘OK, that’s a good song but I just wanna be great.’ And they would go to the wayside. So we were all kinda tense cause we were like, If it’s not the best shit ever then he's not even gonna listen to it.
“What really broke the ice honestly was Connect Four. I'm unbeatable at Connect Four. It’s very spooky how good I am. So he sends the intern and the intern brings back Connect Four and Usher’s competitive so the fact that I said no one can beat me was enough to get everyone. It was a room full of guys so those were fighting words: I said no one could beat me. For days, honestly, me and Usher played round after round of Connect Four and Usher would not stop. I was like, 'We gotta get a song' and he was like ‘Nope.’ He was like, I can’t believe this guy is so sneaky. Everyone was taking turns and could not beat me. Why I was so good at that game is, when I was younger I was a hustler, and they had a Connect Four thing at recess after lunch. We would have it in classrooms so that’s how I would get extra lunch money to buy the snacks that my mom didn’t want me eating. So I would play people in Connect Four and get their money.
So I got really good at that game but Usher kept wanting to play me and I understand that he was competitive but after a while he's gotta want to stop. But this guy was learning my strategy and he played me for like two days and I was killing him. I was like, ‘It’s not even fair.’ I'm talking all this trash. Then the third day he kicked my ass. He mastered my technique and killed me. And now I'm like, OK, but that taught me something. You don’t always have to get it right the first time as long as you get it right. You know what I mean? Me killing him and beating him that many times it didn’t discourage him. It just made him wanna learn it more to be better than me. And so he's just like, Lemme show you why I've been able to stay in this game this long. It’s cause I've been able to adapt. And that’s what he did. He adapted to my playing style and then as he beat me. He was like, ‘You’re really good at this. There’s only one person I've ever played that’s been as good as you.’ I said ‘Who?’ And he said Beyonce. I said ‘Get outta here’ and he's like, ‘She’s incredible at this game.’
For days, honestly, me and Usher played round after round of Connect Four and Usher would not stop. I was like, 'We gotta get a song' and he was like ‘Nope.’
“So that broke the ice and then the next day we ended up doing it. Diplo had the track for ‘Climax,’ and we were like, ‘This is a great track but what the hell do we sing to it?’ And we were just like putting our ideas out and I was singing melodies and he was like, I like this, I don’t like this—hands on. And we ended up coming up with 'Climax.'
At the time I was like, I know this is a weird song, I dunno how it’s gonna end up being perceived cause it’s like... I didn’t know. So the next day Usher came through and blasted it and played it—it had to be like six times straight—and danced to it. Or definitely more than that. I don’t wanna sound like I'm exaggerating but it was a lot, and he was like performing to it in front of the speakers and I was like, Wow this could really be something.
“The way ‘Climax’ happened honestly was I actually have a bunch of concepts in my phone, like a ton of concepts, I have like at least like 400 concepts so usually when we write I will just throw out concepts and he’ll be like, I like this, I don’t like this—and bounce them around. So the concept of that song was the peak of a relationship where it comes to a stop not because someone cheated or lied but just where there's no excitement left because everything has been exhausted and two people just call it a relationship cause they're comfortable and don't necessarily know if they want to invest the time to start a new relationship let alone look for one so you're basically torn.
“The melody and the hook is what came first and then I was like, ‘This is so high... Is he gonna drop the key?' And then he went in there and sang it falsetto. Sometimes I get in trouble cause any song that I write is like super high, so people always say ‘There goes another Redd song,’ cause it’s like super-high. But every now and then you come across a talent like Usher who can sing those types of songs and not have to change it. I just felt that song was something special when we did it. They say you know but I really knew—cause me and Usher did a lot of songs. And people were like, You told us there was one song that was gonna be it. And they know it when they hear it."