Happy 15th Anniversary to Usher’s fourth studio album Confessions, originally released March 23, 2004.
Music and novels are decidedly different artforms, but they both demonstrate the power of a good story. Topics that strike a chord, characters that you root for, anticipation of what’s to come—these elements can make us rewind an album or turn the page all the same. This understanding helped to shape Confessions, the fourth album by Usher. If R&B was a story, lots of characters would be involved. But few would dominate a chapter the way Usher did with his breakthrough LP.
Usher was already one of R&B’s biggest stars prior to Confessions. He had Platinum albums, high-charting singles and big TV performances. But for Usher's team, there was still another level for him to reach. He was a star, but not an icon. Famous, but not ubiquitous.
Jermaine Dupri, L.A. Reid and Usher himself had a solution in mind. The singer had to ramp up interest in who he was outside of music. This sentiment remained as Usher and Dupri began the recording process, and it manifested in a song titled "All Bad."
We now know it as "Confessions Part I," but the original name sums up the song's premise. The record tells a tale of infidelity, a story commonly heard in music. Yet, the song and its sequel gave Usher an amount of attention that few artists ever receive. For years before the release of Confessions, Usher was in a relationship with Chilli, a founding member of the group TLC. The couple appeared together often on red carpets and in music videos. So there was a lot of head-shaking when fans heard Usher sing about cheating.
Usher didn't immediately end the suspicion, since he and his team intended to give Confessions a sense of mystery. But it turns out they did too good of a job, because even Chilli bought into the idea that Usher cheated on her. She did interviews that added to the rumors and her relationship with Usher eventually ended.
Some may see the drama that surrounded Usher's album and think it was all a cheap ploy to sell units. But thankfully, the album itself saved Usher from being just a tabloid star. From strong vocals to meaningful lyrics, great production to smart sequencing—pretty much everything you could ask for in an R&B album is present on Confessions. I doubt Usher wanted to endure a public breakup for the sake of his career. But in a weird way, the breakup afforded him the world's gaze and that's exactly what his album deserved.
The LP's intro is a short offering, but it still sets the tone for what's to come. Usher opens the song with a deep sigh, so it's safe to say he doesn’t have good news to share. He then speaks over production that's reminiscent of old soul music. Usher strengthens this connection with his ad-libs, as his voice echoes in a way that calls Marvin Gaye to mind. Once the track ends, it's clear that Usher has a lot on his mind *DRAMATIC PAUSE* and he's ready to confess. You see what I did there, right?
Confessions starts in a calm, yet suspenseful way thanks to the intro. But as the next track begins, the energy does a 180 that would make Vince Carter proud. The album's second song is "Yeah!," Usher's monstrous collaboration with Lil Jon and Ludacris. The track is an emblem of Lil Jon's reign at the time, from a beat that sounds like a melodic alarm to the "WHAT" and "OKAAAAY" ad-libs that inspired great bits on Chappelle's Show.
The energetic track was destined to be the inescapable hit it became. Usher proves just how catchy a song can be thanks to his voice. And the final bar on Ludacris' verse has to be one of the rap lines most repeated in conversation. Sonically, "Yeah!" sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the album's cuts. But it would have been foolish to omit such a big song.
On the next track, Usher shifts back to the sound heard at the album's start. "Throwback" is produced by the great Just Blaze, who helped shift the sound of hip-hop in the early 2000s alongside Kanye West. The two producers distinguished themselves with the way they manipulated soul samples. And Just Blaze added to his lore with "Throwback," since the Dionne Warwick sample he used is about as vital to the song as Usher.
Warwick's voice pops up often and says, "You're gonna want me back... You're gonna need me one day." These words convey the same regret that Usher admits in his singing, but they offer a voice to the person wronged. "Throwback" would still be a great song without the sample. But with it, the cut moves from being a desperate plea to an emotional exchange.
Usher hears Warwick’s words and responds with desperation. He inflects his voice almost each time he asks for another chance, creating a sense of urgency. And his sentiments match the brooding sound of the beat. But Usher's message is best captured by two of his final lines: "The love of my life / But I wasn't loving you right, baby."
"Throwback" conveys Usher's regret, and the reason for it is revealed on the next track. "Confessions (Interlude)" is the dramatic moment needed for a good story. On the track, Usher acts out his response to his mistress' pregnancy. With the scene Usher portrays and the way the beat fades out, the interlude might as well be part of a soap opera. And the quiet storm voice Usher speaks in is a nice touch as well.
The news Usher receives on the interlude is enough to make a man think, "What did I get myself into?" And this thought is exactly what's expressed on the next song, "Confessions Part II." Usher sounds lost as he prepares to break the news to his girlfriend. He then describes the moment the two of them come face to face. Even without the music video, you can picture Usher graveling thanks to the high note he hits in the second verse.
The details are so vivid on the title track that the song can be (and was) easily understood as Usher's reality. But years after its release, Dupri revealed the song is actually based off of his life. To some fans, this revelation felt like the moment they learned Santa Claus isn't real. But while the song's authenticity may be questioned, its quality is undeniable. Melodies and stacked vocals help to make Usher's verses just as catchy as the hook. And the production from Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox gives the song a bounce that's hard to resist.
Dupri's account of cheating is central to Confessions, but it doesn't define each song. A prime example is the song "Caught Up." The track is uptempo, giving fans a good jolt after several songs about heartbreak. It has a throwback feel, thanks to production from Dre & Vidal that resembles the play of a live band. Usher sounds just as lively, as he pulls off a remarkable amount of vocal runs with clear excitement in his voice.
Usher's energy on "Caught Up" shows the joy of falling for someone new, and that joy carries over into the song "Superstar." On the track, Usher showers his lady with the adoration he receives at concerts. He hits high notes that can rival the screams of a crowd. And his lyrics show the type of dedication found in fan mail.
Usher delivers more feel-good records with "Truth Hurts" and "Simple Things." Yet, the songs are more cautionary than the joyous "Superstar." On "Truth Hurts," Usher accuses his partner of infidelity, only to reveal that he's the one guilty of it. He then uses "Simple Things" to explain the pitfalls of equating money with love. Both songs convey messages that can prompt fans to take a long look in the mirror. But the weight of the topics isn't too heavy, as the tracks still urge us to two-step.
The groove behind Usher's words should be no surprise given who produced the tracks. Both songs are crafted by the legendary Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and the duo powers another standout on the LP in "Bad Girl." If the title isn't self-explanatory, the guitar riff heard throughout firmly sets the tone. Seduction is what's on Usher's mind as he describes the women that attract him. Usher makes liquor references that date the song, but "Bad Girl" can still grip a nightclub like it just came out.
"Bad Girl" exemplifies how timeless Confessions is as a whole. To this day, few songs can set the mood like "Can U Handle It?" and "That's What It's Made For." And a song like "Take Your Hand" shows how distinct Usher's voice is. The album's production strikes a good balance between classic and modern sounds. The lyrics are compelling as well, as they capture different emotions born from love and heartbreak.
Good music isn't always what sells the most, but Confessions proved to be an exception. The album was a huge commercial success, as it sold 1.1 million copies in its first week and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. "Yeah!," "Burn" and "Confessions Part II" all reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100. And in 2008, the album was certified Diamond for 10 million units shifted.
With these sorts of numbers, Usher officially became a superstar. He went on to release a deluxe edition of the LP, create a short film that features album cuts and headline a world tour. Usher had long been billed as the heir to Michael Jackson's throne because of his talent. But after Confessions, Usher's fame became reason for the comparison.
Confessions appeared to be the start of a long reign for Usher. But over the years, his star dimmed amid changes to his image and the high standard he set for himself. Usher's marriage to Tameka Foster interfered with his image as a playboy. And though he went on to release good albums and singles, he has never recaptured the magic of Confessions.
It's unfair to expect Usher to match such a monumental album. But fans' desire for him to do so is a testament to the album's quality and impact. Few R&B albums can match the level of singing and production heard on Confessions. Even fewer tell a story that compels millions of listeners. And no album since has spawned as many big hits that are unmistakably R&B. These feats have made Confessions a landmark—one that casts a shadow across all of Usher's other work, but is too big to ever be overlooked.