FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Usher, “Confessions”

If there is one album that I will defend to the death as one of the greatest R&B releases of recent memory, it is Usher’s fourth full length offering, Confessions. Which is something I find interesting considering the fact that for the three years or so following its release, I remained stubbornly opposed to the mere idea of liking it in any capacity. Still, twelve years after it broke records, selling 1.1 million copies in its first first week alone, it remains one of those albums I put on when I have no idea what else to listen to.

For the better part of a decade, it has remained on high rotation, the physical copy so well loved that the case needs to be replaced, the digital versions seemingly permanently in my Top 25 and Recently Played lists, it makes up almost every road-trip and pre-game playlist. Moreover, the influence of the 2004 release can be heard across the genre to this very day.

In 2004, Usher was making the considered transition from teen heartthrob to mature crooner finally honing the potential he’d had all along. The time between 2001’s 8701 (which featured the singles U-Turn and U Remind Me) and Confessions was no doubt formative. Usher won two Grammys and began working on a more self-assured, confident sound. I, having started high school and dropped dance classes, rejected R&B in favour of pop-punk, indie-pop/rock and The Cure almost exclusively while remaining totally ignorant to the fact that music of every genre was suffering due to something we considered harmless and small: piracy. As musicians suffered through the Napster era, my friends and I were sharing around copies and mixes of our new discoveries and Usher, an artist who I actually had very vivid, fond memories of prior to that, never made an appearance.

Released at the very beginning of the new millennium (aka, when illegally downloading music was experiencing its first real boom) Usher’s 2001 album 8701 was written and rewritten a number of times in an effort to circumvent music piracy. Three years later by some miracle, Confessions was released and became one of the fastest selling albums not only of the Napster-era, but since, with 20 million copies sold worldwide.

When my younger brother brought home his very own copy of Confessions (not the deluxe, extended version), I believe I scoffed and turned my nose up. Now, that same copy sits in my collection, the case in dire need of replacing and there is no way that my brother is ever getting it back, despite the fact that I can easily access it on Spotify whenever I wish. I like to think of it as making up for lost time because it took me so long to wake up to Confessions. Indeed, it is held up to-date as Usher’s greatest artistic achievement – catharsis often can be.

Opening with the foreshadowing Intro, we instantly get a view into what kind of album this is going to be: he’s putting it all out there: “these are my confessions,” over a sparkling production. Were it not for the honesty and authenticity of the songs that make up the rest of Confessions, the 47 second introduction may come across as insincere. Yeah! Quickly follows, a reminder of crunk’s mainstream stronghold in the early 2000s, but not so much that it dates the track but instead injects it with what is now a gentle nostalgia. It sat at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three months and remains even now a dance-floor filler – a timeless banger.

On Throwback, we gain our first real insight into what confessions Usher has to make over the 19 songs he has us for: “You never miss a good thing till it leaves ya/Finally I realised that I need ya.” The soulful instrumentation and backing vocals bolster the track to produce a peak in the album early on, the bold beats underneath ensuring that it maintains a certain contemporary flavour. It is also the first (but certainly not last) track on which we get a taste for just how expansive Usher’s vocal range is. A unique voice from the beginning, there has always been little room to mistake Usher for another vocalist and not only for the fact that for so long he was a dominating force in the popular music charts.

On the well-worn physical copy of Confessions I own, the title track is a 1.15 minute interlude that flows into Confessions Part II seamlessly. An extended version of the track closes the album and while it doesn’t necessarily require it, it does tie everything up by bringing us back to the confessions mentioned in Intro. Confessions is a one-sided phone call, Usher on the phone to the woman he has cheated on his partner with. Though the song is reportedly about producer Jermaine Dupri‘s indiscretions and not Usher’s own, there’s no denying that the breakdown of Usher’s relationship with TLC’s Chilli (cited a result of his being unfaithful) evoked controversy around its release.

The interlude swiftly glides into Part II and we get the full confession. A wonderfully tinny riff punctuates what is undoubtedly the best beat on the record, with Usher’s impressive vocals layered up on high. The song itself experiences its own interlude and despite the somewhat trite reference to ‘manning up’, it survives to re-introduce the keys from the track before to the spotlight.

We see that theme throughout the record – a brief spoken word interlude, setting the scene for that song. On Superstar Interlude and Superstar we move through a breathy introduction into a sensual serenade, before Burn, perhaps the most popular (and Grammy-winning) example of this approach. Rather than using an entirely separate track, the song begins with a spoken introduction that develops into a song showcasing the soulful side of Usher’s falsetto. Of the album’s five singles, it was arguably the most enduring. It was one of three songs off the album to reach the Top 25 of the decade, coming in at number 21 (Yeah! hit number two and the Alicia Keys duet on the deluxe version, My Boo, number 36).

These were but a handful of the accolades Confessions has collected since its release. Of eight Grammy nominations, Usher won Best Contemporary R&B Album, Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (for My Boo which features a section of Bad Girl) and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (for Yeah!). At the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, Usher racked up eleven awards, including Artist of the Year, Male Artist of the Year, and Hot 100 Song of the Year for Yeah!

In my mind, a great album can be measured in a few ways. Confessions ticks a number of boxes, one of them being that before you know it, you’re almost at the end of the entire thing and it feels like it’s only been a few minutes. To me, that means there was no need to impatiently skip tracks (a bad habit I’m often found guilty of indulging) to get to the good ones, because they’re all good. There are critics who often discuss Confessions as being unevenly weighted: much of The Good at the start and The Bad making up the second half of the album, but I would argue that it’s more like 90 percent, with the two songs I can personally do without That’s What It’s Made For and Can U Handle It?) simply making up a mid-point interlude. However, anyone who stops listening to Confessions mid-way misses out on some of the most fun to be had throughout. The funk of Take My Hand builds upon itself until it reaches the smooth ebb and flow of  Follow Me – together, they refresh the album, the change of pace a reinvigorating surprise.

An instant classic upon release, the influence of Usher’s Confessions and its contributors can be heard across the genre to this day. From Miguel to Justin Timberlake to The Internet and many before, between and no doubt to come, the fusion of throwback, soulful elements and modern production matched with an almost unprecedented emotional authenticity began here in this work and has filtered in some way, shape or form into many since. The influence of Confessions is everywhere and though he has released albums and won awards since, this is the album that continues to ensure Usher’s continued legacy as one of the modern greats.

Image: lastfm