Usher’s ‘Confessions’ Turns 10: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
There’s a scene in Eminem’s semi-biographical film 8 Mile, where he’s about to deliver his final battle rap, preparing for his opponent to air out all of his dirty laundry. Instead, Eminem chooses to confess it all — from minutiae to major factoids -—ultimately leaving his opponent Papa Doc with no fodder left to expose. That was Usher’s angle taken with his fourth studio album, aptly titled Confessions.
R&B music in 2004 was approaching a crossroads. It was a year for women to takeover, as acts like Destiny’s Child, Ciara, Ashanti, Janet Jackson and even Jill Scott were either delivering breakout projects or critically acclaimed masterpieces. The men were lacking. John Legend wouldn’t arrive until the end of the year, and R. Kelly wouldn’t pair with Jay Z for a second time until close to Halloween. The lane was wide open for Usher Raymond IV to become what he always wanted to be: a chart-topping global sensation. In order to do that, he had to release some of his demons and replace them with sonic innovation that would not only soulfully bend genres in a way that had never effectively been done before, but reinvent the wheel for the male R&B artist.
From top to bottom Confessions had a formula, which was to emote in a way that would still be punctuated with machismo, even at the most vulnerable moments. At the same time, Usher was tinkering with a new style that would make his music more “Rap-friendly.” Sure his earliest days were spent with Diddy, and his right hand producer man was (and still is) Jermaine Dupri, but it wasn’t enough in the burgeoning Hip-Hop-Meets-Pop scene. He needed more. Much more. And he found it. On his own terms.
Confessions was appropriately named in that the album leaned on a notion of exactly that: confessing. While Usher denied his infidelity, it was assumed that he cheated on TLC’s Chilli throughout their two-year relationship. It was later proved to be untrue (rumor has it those songs were about Jermaine Dupri’s life), but there’s a theme of cheating and how the cheating happened. The album addresses that on a surface level, but it was more or less Usher’s means of also acknowledging his own wild ways and approaching that grown man status. Legendary producer Terry Lewis (of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) had a different plan for the project. Having known Usher for quite some time and forging a close friendship with Mr. Raymond, he felt like the project should have a fun element to it.
“When we were talking about the concepts of Confessions, I was like, man, nobody wants to hear you confess. That causes too much undue stress on other brothers,” Lewis explains. “People wanna hear about the fun you have. Everybody wants to live vicariously through someone they think is successful, rich…that kind of thing. So they don’t wanna hear you boo-hoo-ing. They want to hear about the crazy stuff you did to get you into that position that would make you have to confess.”
“He was very energized,” Jimmy Jam adds of Usher’s mind state as he approached Confessions. “He’s what I call a prolific thinker, meaning he has a million ideas. He comes up with ideas so that you don’t even finish the first idea and he’s already on the next one. He came into Confessions with a ton of ideas. I think he was energized with the acceptance of 8701. That was a really important album.”
8701 preceded Confessions and was a total homerun with tracks like “U Got It Bad,” “U Don’t Have To Call,” and a slew of others. It was clear Usher’s confidence level was up and was he ready to experiment a bit. “He came at it with a lot of confidence, a lot of cockiness in a good way,” Jimmy Jam says. “He felt very secure in his place and wanted to make a great album where every cut was good from start to finish.”
“Yeah” was the most glaring example of that, where Usher (or “Ursher”) was geared to take his fusion with hip-hop to a whole other level with the Lil Jon-produced track featuring Ludacris.
“‘Yeah’ to me isn’t even a song, it’s more like a movement,” Terry Lewis says. “During the time the song was put out, there were at least three, maybe four tracks that were the same as ‘Yeah.’ One of the biggest of those songs was [Petey Pablo’s] ‘Freek-A-Leek at the peak of Lil Jon’s movement [Lil Jon produced the track]. Usher put a style on top of it and a swag on it that you didn’t have with just the rap. He was able to bridge the gap between hip-hop and pop. He put it into an acceptable form for the world. That’s why a song like that was so huge.”
Jimmy Jam needed a reworked version of it to be on board, but once that happened, he was into it.
“It’s interesting because when I heard the track initially, I didn’t like it. But when the track came out, I loved it,” Jam admits. “I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized that the track had actually changed. The original track he sang over was a different track than what ended up coming out.” The switch involved some tweaks in the synths of the production. “The change in the track made all the difference to me in the world. It made the song have a bigger better personality to it.”
Producer Just Blaze was called in for a unique mission for the project: to craft a song around a dance. It leaned into the same “hip hop centric” aspect of the album. After several rounds, the result was the track “Throwback.” Just Blaze explains as follows:
Usher wanted to work with me, and I had just come off, I think, Mariah Carey’s album and another Jay Z album or whatever. So he reaches out, we go into the studio, and I forget who it was, but one of his people pulls me to the side and was like, ‘Yo, Usher has this dance. Ask him to show you the dance.’ I’m like, ‘The dance?’ They’re like, ‘He has a dance that he needs a record for,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s pretty backwards…’ Most times, people make up dances to a song, but I’m like alright, whatever and then I went and chased my tail for three days trying to come up with a record for this dance that I hadn’t even seen. Needless to say, that didn’t work out. So he came to the studio, we worked on a few records together, and Usher liked them but nothing really panned out. He’s like, ‘Yo, I need a straight rap beat!’ I’m like, ‘But, your man said you needed a record for the dance!’ He’s like, ‘Don’t listen to them. They think they know what I need. I need a rap beat that I’m gonna sing over. Like, picture ’93 Mary J. Blige just straight up singing on a rap beat.’ And I’m like, alright. So I go in and I make a bunch of those – still nothing. So then, I remembered like two years before, I had made a beat for Dr. Dre for Detox when he was working on it the first time. The whole story with Detox was this was his final album, blah, blah, blah. So, I had this concept of him leaving the rap game, and that’s why the beat says, ‘Ooh, you’re gonna want me back!’ because the song was supposed to be about Dre leaving the rap game, but him saying to the rap game and to the fans, ‘I’m out, but you’re going to want me back. You’re going to need me.’ So Dre loved it, got a bunch of people to write and demo it and had all these different versions of it, and then as we all know, nothing happened. So, I’m trying to make these beats for Usher to dance to and all this other craziness, and I’m just like, ‘Yo, you know what? Just listen to this.’ And I play it for him and he’s like, ‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about!’
The Playa Party had to get rained out at some point, and several tracks on Confessions were fully equipped with emotions. The hit single “Burn” being one of them.
“‘Burn’s’ one of my favorite Usher songs,” Jimmy Jam says. “It’s a ballad, but it has a bounce to it.”
The song reinforces Usher’s knack for a rhythmic cadence, as he detailed the stress of a breakup. That delivery on the song is one in which new school generations of R&B artists thoroughly utilize to this day.
“Usher is definitely the uncredited innovator of what I call the New Age R&B Ballad: that rhythmic delivery style that he has,” Terry Lewis adds.
“Burn” was just one of many examples on the album of the artistic chemistry between Jermaine Dupri and Usher. JD produced “Burn,” “Confessions (Parts I & II)” and with “Do It To Me.” Having worked with Dupri since the early days of parting with Diddy, their sound has evolved together, and by Confessions it almost reached its fullest potential.
“To me, it’s not really an Usher project without Jermaine Dupri,” Jimmy Jam says. “They work so well together and you see the result of that on the album.”
Other producers like Dre & Vidal produced the monster “Caught Up,” “Superstar,” and “Follow Me,” while even Robin Thicke got his hands dirty in the production of “Can U Handle It?” Rich Harrison, of Beyoncé/JLo fame, came correct on “Take Your Hand.” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis “filled in the gaps,” as Jam likes to put it.
“What me and Terry bring to the project is a whole different type of sound from Jermaine Dupri,” he explains. “We approach Usher as a singer. We always thought he was a little underrated as a vocalist. We always thought that his style of singing and style of entertaining were so powerful, that the fact he could flat out sing would sometimes get lost.”
The dynamic duo brought the track “Truth Hurts,” a cut that’s rooted in guilt where the cheating half assumes the other is cheating as well. The poignant “Simple Things” was another, along with “Bad Girl” and “That’s What It’s Made For.” The songs ran the gamut of emotion, lightheartedness and understanding, which added to the rest struck a balance. “There were a lot of good contrasts which made it a complete record,” Jimmy Jam says.
Usher’s fourth studio album Confessions was a journey into the mind of a man who was searching for something, and found himself in the process. In doing so, he created the words that other people could feel at any emotional pinnacle when you let yourself be transparent and vulnerable.
“Confessions was a destination along the road that [Usher] is just traveling in his life,” Jam explains. “Being able to share where he is in life for any artist is important. Being able to express that and put it into words to other people can basically explain their position in life and their feelings. He’s just really good at that.”
“He’s a regular guy who happens to be a brilliant artiste,” Lewis adds. “At Confessions time, he was just focused on being Usher…And he’s pretty damn good at being Usher.”