Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
“What’s a love song released this century that you truly adore?” I asked my friend Kayla Greaves, Executive Beauty Editor at InStyle. As an R&B enthusiast, naming a single love song released in the last 22 years took her way longer than it should have. Though she’s not an old person, Kayla has a notoriously old soul. She doesn’t like modern music. At all. None of it. She doesn’t even like modern technology, evidenced by the CDs, cassettes, and boombox on the media console in her living room. But after much deliberation, she finally thought of a post-millennium love song near and dear to her heart: Usher’s “U Got It Bad” (released 21 entire years ago).
Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating when I say Kayla has an old soul. I’m not. She has a 28-hour and 45-minute Spotify playlist devoted to her favorite type of R&B: “Men Begging, Loving & Yearning.” Of those 361 songs, less than 30 were released after the Clinton administration (and only half of those were released after the Bush administration). But I can’t fault her for this. If love songs are rare these days, songs about loving someone so much you’d beg for them to stay are damn near extinct. This is why I’m so intrigued by the one she suggested I cover today.
“U Got It Bad” isn’t like most begging music that’s celebrated. Though it certainly contains the fundamental elements of the subgenre—passionate singing, dramatic declarations of love, and a music video with a grand gesture of desperation—there’s a generality to its writing that’s preserved its resonance all these years later. Whereas other men who find themselves groveling on wax do so with an inescapable sense of wrongdoing, Usher and his co-writers leave room in “U Got It Bad” for all types of begging to apply. Even the type I’ve done myself.
See, I’m a very specific sort of simp. Wood is being knocked on as I write this, but I’ve never messed up bad enough for a woman to want to leave me. Every breakup I’ve experienced happened for reasons that had more to do with circumstance than any one person’s actions. This means I’ve never felt the desire to rekindle an extinguished flame. Instead, as a hopeful romantic (and a Cancer), most of my begging happens in courtship. Believe it or not, the lyrics of “U Got It Bad” fit this kind of head-over-heels, nose-wide-openness just as well.
When you feel it in your body, you found somebody who
Makes you change your ways like hanging with your crew
Said you act like you ready, but you don’t really know
And everything in your past, you wanna let it go
I’ve been there, done it, fucked around
After all that, this is what I found
Nobody wants to be alone
If you’re touched by the words in this song
Throughout much of “U Got It Bad,” Usher, supported by co-writers Brian Michael-Cox and Jermaine Dupri, sings of the clarity that comes with finding love. Within the context of the song’s lyrics, that clarity presumably comes after the consequences of cheating. But the record could also be interpreted in another way.
If you live in a city with an infamously casual dating scene—New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc.—certain lyrics from the song’s opening verse and pre-chorus could speak to the exhaustion you’ve felt navigating the trappings of such areas. Being from New York myself, I feel like I’ve been to enough day parties, smoked enough hookah, and gone home with enough strangers for two lifetimes. These things are fun until they’re suddenly boring. Nothing will make you realize this faster than falling in love.
As Usher describes finding someone who makes you want to forget your past and skip nights out with your crew, that sentiment could apply to the discovery of a new love just as much as the near loss of an old one. For people who are truly ready for a serious relationship, as they yearn for a deeper connection than anyone on their current roster could give them, the song’s pre-chorus is especially powerful.
“I’ve been there, done it, f**ked around/ After all that, this is what I found/ Nobody wants to be alone.” Plenty of big city daters have come to this realization at some point, and it didn’t take damaging a relationship to get there. For those of us lucky enough to have found love despite certain obstacles, the intense attachment in the following chorus is also relatable.
You got it, you got it bad
When you’re on the phone, hang up and you call right back
You got it, you got it bad
If you miss a day without your friend, your whole life’s off-track
Know you got it bad when you’re stuck in the house
You don’t wanna have fun, it’s all you think about
You got it bad when you’re out with someone
But you keep on thinking ’bout somebody else
You got it bad
Once a person is finally open to love, no matter how that readiness came to be, that’s when their greatest sense of romantic urgency hits. Essentially, this is what’s at the core of most begging music, “U Got It Bad” included. The feeling that if you were to go one more day without the person you want, you might actually combust in a fit of despair. This is true whether your own actions are the reason that person isn’t around, or if you’ve been ensnared in a seemingly never-ending “talking stage” and haven’t yet committed to each other in the first place.
This is what it means to “have it bad.” In 2001, it looked like, “When you’re on the phone, hang up and you call right back.” In 2022 it looks more like checking that DM or text thread every three minutes as if your phone suddenly stopped sending push notifications. The beginning of the above chorus is very clear about this part: The first step in yearning for someone is every minute without them feeling like an hour.
The second half of the chorus is reflective of something I covered in my breakdown of Kehlani and Justin Bieber’s “up at night,” a song about separation anxiety in relationships. In that piece, I wrote about the restlessness I often feel sleeping without my partner beside me when I’m away on work trips. Though I’m slightly more functional during the day than Usher is in this part of the song, as what he’s describing could border on some form of depression, the fact that my happily coupled self can relate to these lyrics at all speaks to how evergreen this sort of simping is.
When you say that you love them and you really know
Everything that used to matter don’t matter no more
Like my money, all my cars (you can have it all and)
Flowers, cards and candy (I do it just ’cause I’m)
Said I’m fortunate to have you, girl
I want you to know I really adore you
All my people who know what’s going on
Look at your mate, help me sing my song
Tell her: “I’m your man, you’re my girl
I’m gonna tell it to the whole wide world”
Ladies say: “I’m your girl, you’re my man
Promise to love you the best I can”
I’m not at liberty to discuss my friend Kayla’s opinion on romantic pleas from men in real life (I know what that opinion is, I’m just not at liberty to discuss it). But I know she approves of my willingness to beg both before and during a relationship. Like with most of my other women friends, the way I publicly and privately profess my love for my partner is one of the things Kayla admires most about me (the men in my circle are of a different mind on the matter).
The key to still being able to beg even when it’s not necessarily needed is knowing grand gestures of devotion don’t always have to come with a “baby, please come home” call to action. Sometimes imploring your partner to understand just how much you cherish and adore them is devout enough. This can happen at literally any time. I’ve done it simply because my girlfriend made me breakfast.
The entire second verse of “U Got It Bad” is filled with this sort of verbal affirmation. It opens with Usher reiterating just how little most things outside of his relationship matter now that he finally appreciates the love he’s found. What follows are my favorite lyrics of the song, and perhaps some of my favorite Usher lyrics ever.
“I’m your man, you’re my girl/ I’m gonna tell it to the whole wide world” is something that’d sound radically earnest today. For it to be repeated back from a woman’s perspective shows a vulnerability from Usher that’s altogether unheard of in today’s R&B. Ending with a promise “to love you the best I can,” there’s a straightforward brilliance to this verse that leads back to the pre-chorus and primary chorus before the song’s end.
I often tease Kayla for not being interested in discovering new music. In most cases, when people say, “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” what they really mean is they don’t make ‘em this often anymore. But with jadedness and toxicity underscoring much of today’s R&B music, artists truly do not make songs as sincere, egoless, and beautifully anguished as “U Got It Bad” anymore. Kayla’s got me on this one.