As Confessions celebrates its 10th anniversary (on March 23), we look back at how Usher's classic album overshadowed its remarkable predecessor
Usher couldn't know it at the time, but Napster did him a favor. In April 2001, tracks from his third album, then titled All About U, popped up on the mp3-sharing network; among them, "Pop Ya Collar," a cheesy instructional song that showcased more trend than progression. It barely registered. The leak forced Usher back in the studio to record new material. Most of All About U was scrapped, unfortunate title included. In what was essentially a do-over, a new gorgeous single was born: “U Remind Me” (Usher hung onto that “U” theme) that would later become a No. 1 hit for four weeks. 8701, Usher's best album thus far, was born. And Napster had practically played the role of A&R.
The story of 8701 is the genesis of Usher's pop reign and set the stage for his diamond-certified Confessions. Post-adolescence, he became the reckless playboy generous enough to consider leaving the one he was with for that new relationship. On 8701, Usher sounds every bit entitled (She should've stayed. She should've called. She should’ve realized she had a good thing).
The playboy was forced to love as an adult and deal with all the growing pains and confusion it wrought. It's music about learning how to make love (“Twork It Out”), search for love (“U Got It Bad”), admit love (“How Do I Say"), get over it (“Can U Help Me”) and finally heal from it (“U Don’t Have To Call”).
These two albums are only three years apart (released when Usher was 23 and 25), which is like dog years for someone transitioning from star to superstar. Confessions had all the 21+ tension that 8701 only grazed—8701 brought the trials; Confessions unveiled the errors. The latter classic wrestled with wrongdoings and juggled secrets and babies on the side—all the fun mistakes that catch up to you. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. That Confessions seemingly mirrored Usher’s real life made it that much more scandalous and tantalizing.
Confessions found its own space and even became bigger than Usher. While 8701 would become under-appreciated behind the eclipse of its successor, it was undeniably part of a so-called R&B Renaissance during a year when even underdog, Joe, had a No. 1 hit with “Stutter” (yes, on the main pop chart).
Commercial R&B was excelling enough for VIBE to do a February 2002 cover story titled “The Re-Energizers,” profiling the new R&B class featuring Usher, Faith, Craig David and... wait for it… Blu Cantrell. In the article, Luther Vandross expressed to VIBE that he felt “R&B had lost the feeling” because “it was so based in hip-hop.” So it was considered a coup that more R&B songs than rap songs topped Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 2001, while Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” Janet Jackson’s “All For You” and Alicia Keys “Fallin'” all peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Usher claimed two of those top pop spots with 8701’s “U Remind Me” and “U Got It Bad.”
Then came Confessions, an album many R&B lovers consider the Thriller of our generation and most recognize as Usher's best. But is it truly his greatest work? One side-effect is that its success devalued a sterling 5X platinum LP. Some like their Usher young, arrogant and a tad tortured (guilty). Others prefer him a bit foul and unshaven. Whichever album you connect to most, just know that both share the same DNA: uncompromising Rhythm & Blues. Not that “OMG” stuff. —Clover Hope (@clovito)