From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Uh-oh: Usher Raymond's two young sons seem headed straight for a meltdown during a family photo shoot at his Atlanta-area home. Reluctantly, the singer reaches for his secret weapon. "Hey," he says, "who wants gum?" At the mere mention of this treat, the boys calm down and happily sit for pictures. "I almost never bribe them," Usher, 31, explains with a sheepish grin. He pauses, wondering if he did the right thing. "I guess it was an emergency," he sighs. "Besides, it was sugarless."

Is this suburban dad the same Usher whose chiseled body and lyrics about reckless nightclub abandon have helped him sell 48 million albums? Sure is, says one of music's most eligible bachelors, whose new EP Versus sheds new light on his love life. "I'm a dad, first and foremost," Usher says. "Of course I have to travel and make a living, but my sons are my priority....I never knew I could be so happy just hanging out with them."

To make it all work, the singer has forged a cordial relationship with their mother, Tameka Foster, 39, whom he divorced in 2009 after a rocky two-year marriage that included a canceled wedding and what he calls "epic" disagreements. "We had to put our issues aside and focus on raising them," says Usher. (He and Foster share custody of Usher V, who turns 3 in November, and Naviyd, who turns 2 a month later.) "It's what responsible parents do. There will never be another mother for my sons. And I'll always be their father."

Though some closest to him-especially his mother and former manager, Jonetta Patton-were convinced that Foster was wrong for him from the start, Usher doesn't see their marriage as a failure. "Without Tameka, I wouldn't have had a lot of things in my life, including my sons," he says. "My decision to marry her was based off a genuine relationship between us. We were following our hearts." But shortly afterward, he says, they began to disagree about everything from child rearing to his busy schedule. "It's hard to watch a relationship fall apart," he says. "You wonder where you failed."

He brushes aside touchier matters, like the 911 call he made last year, during which he reported "potential violence between me and my ex-wife" and claimed that his car had been keyed. "Fighting after divorce is bad for the kids, so anything in the past should remain in the past," says Usher. "We had a friendship before we got together romantically, and that helps us get along now."

While Usher says "everything's cool" between him and Foster, tracks from his last album, Raymond vs. Raymond, seem to say otherwise. The bitter "Papers" details a divorce that sounds strikingly like Usher's. "I didn't write it by myself, and it wasn't only about me," he insists. "Some things are from personal experience and some are exaggerated. People can read anything into my music."

One thing not open to interpretation: his vow never to let another relationship drive his mom away. "My mother is one of the most important people in the world to me-I need her in my life," Usher says. He does go on dates, usually dinner with women he meets through friends. (He drives them in his Porsche, not the Mercedes with the car seats and "Cheerios, crackers and toys" on the floor.) "Usher takes relationships more seriously now. He used to be like a young kid. Now he's a man," says the singer's longtime confidant Mark Pitts, Jive's president of Urban Music. Says Usher: "Who knows? Marriage might find me again someday. But not too soon."

Until that day comes, he plans to be picky. "The objective is to find someone that works with me through it all," he says. "I want someone I can talk to, someone who's a muse and someone who loves me for me, not because I'm famous."

And, it goes without saying, she must love kids. "When I'm home, I spend a lot of time with my sons," he says. "I make great breakfasts for them: pancakes, eggs and turkey bacon. We go for bike rides. I goof off with them all day long. Any future relationship will have to fit in with this." Bubblegum bribes, car seats and all.