Usher - Confessions_cover

When it comes to Usher Raymond IV, there’s been a debate in recent years as to which is his best album, and the argument always falls between 8701 and Confessions. 8701, with its flirtations and fun moments and teases, was perfect in middle school or, in my case, for freshman year of high school, when I was still young and dumb. Confessions, on the other hand, dropped my senior year of high school – March 23, 2004, to be exact – when I was growing into the early stages of manhood fresh off feeling lonely on Valentine’s Day and preparing for the fast-approaching next chapter of my life with college.

2004 likely signaled a growing point for Usher, too. Usher spent the late 90s and early ’00s still embracing teen heartthrob-ism in both his music and his movie roles: he literally played a high schooler in every movie and TV show he was in – The Faculty, Light It Up, She’s All That and let’s certainly not forget Moesha.

He started by embracing what was hot at the time, the emerging musical phenomenon that began (and ended) with Lil’ Jon known as “CrunkNB.” Teaming up with Lil’ Jon and Ludacris, Usher returned in a major way with Confessions’ smash first single, “Yeah!” The song was ridiculously infectious on its own, and Ludacris provided in one line the default credentials for wifey (“a lady in the sheets but a freak in the bed”).

Usher – Yeah from DirectorX on Vimeo.

Then the video exploded onto MTV’s Total Request Live (remember that?!) and BET’s “106 & Park” countdown show – you know, back when Free & dat ass and AJ & those dreadrow cornlocks hosted – and viewers were bombarded with a light-show and found ourselves literally “thunder-clapping” in our cars, living rooms, and in the clubs when the song came on. (it didn’t hurt that Usher would piggyback off of “Yeah!” a few months later and return the favor on Lil’ Jon’s grown-and-sexy-yet raunchy single “Lovers & Friends,” which would also feature Ludacris).

But beneath the fun, Usher had an actual real-life story to tell – one about sex, poor decisions, consequences, and being on top of the world one minute to feeling your world falling apart at your feet the next. From the minute the subtle guitar strums and flute went to work on the album’s intro and Usher insisted “These are my confessions”, it was clear that this was a more grown-up affair than any of its predecessors. Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis handled most of the production, lacing it with mostly mature sound.

U Don’t Have to Call” was a bitter song, an after the argument I just need to hit the club to chill out while my girl lets off some steam track that was jamming enough for us not to notice when we were younger. “Throwback” had Usher unashamedly admitting that he wanted his old thing back, and even getting his rapper on. To say nothing of the three-hit combo that was “Confessions Pt. 1”; the haymaker that still goes hard known as “Confessions Pt. 2” (which literally had Usher admitting on wax to his relationship struggles with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and using a Chilli clone in the music video, where the real one had been his all-too-willing co-star in “U Got It Bad”); and the uppercut of closure in “Burn.” “Can U Handle It,” “Do It to Me,” and “That’s What It’s Made For” were essentials for any “Fuck Action” slow jams playlist.

It’s not surprising that Confessions not only went Diamond, but that Usher felt a need to re-release the album in a Special Edition, one that contained a duet with Alicia Keys that set the tone for all kinds of summer love, “My Boo”, and a critical When You Gon’ Let Me Hit playlist selection in “Seduction.”

But in the same way that it signals one of Usher’s greatest triumphs, in turning his pain into our listening pleasure, it also was the last we saw of Usher the pure R&B musician. In the albums that followed Confessions, the idea of “pulling an Usher” – of completely transforming your sound from R&B to pop – came into being. Here I Stand, Raymond Vs. Raymond and its “EP” of sorts VERSUS, and most recently Looking 4 Myself all had decent songs on the tracklist but Usher’s voice was often lost in the pop/EDM elements of it all.

A lot has changed in ten years. Since then, Usher’s moved on from mere breakup songs to divorce anthems and demanded love in the club, and I’m a writer stuck in neutral. But I can still listen to Confessions and, if only for an hour and nineteen minutes, go back to feeling like I’m there at the cusp again – excited, afraid, and ready to learn.