'Confessions' Turns 13: The Anatomy Of Usher's Masterpiece
As Usher's Confessions approaches its 10th birthday, VIBE rounds up key members of the album's creative pod for a look-back on the making of a classic
The story is not about how Confessions was made. Speak with every A&R, engineer, songwriter and producer in the liner notes and you just may develop a picture of how the track list was constructed. But you still won’t know how Usher's best work became the classic that it stands today. To mine that gem you need to know the real story. The real stories: How Usher nearly passed on records that are fan favorites today (see: “Throwback”) for tracks that his cabinet considered “wack” (“Wifey,” “Where Are You,” produced by Pharrell); that his Confessions creative process was powered by the real life experience of he and his collaborators; how he threw repeated tantrums to not record "Yeah!"
The story of how Usher's greatest composition became a diamond-selling monster, which begat singles that traded the No. 1 and No. 2 Billboard spots for nearly six months, truly begins when Usher thought his fourth studio album was finished. Sessions with R&B champs Dre & Vidal and legendary maestro duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced burners like “Caught Up” and “Bad Girl,” but it wasn't until Mr. Raymond got with the Quincy Jones to his MJ—Jermaine Dupri—and the Rod Templeton to JD's Quincy—Bryan Michael-Cox—that his follow-up to the 5x platinum 8701 became the Thriller of our generation. But before Chilli could air out Usher's infidelities on Atlanta radio or Ray Charles’ death could steal the Best Album Grammy from the best album, there was L.A. Reid bringing his protégé the record that would inspire Confessions’ best vocal performance. —Bonsu Thompson, with additional reporting by John Kennedy and Shanel Odum
MARK PITTS (A&R): We started with Dre and Vidal. They sent some records up to the label. “Superstar” was the one that really got L.A.’s attention. Dre and Vidal set the tone for the album.
DARRALE JONES (A&R): I was in a Lupe [Fiasco] meeting with L.A. Reid and at the end of the meeting, L.A. said to me, “You need to figure out how to get on Usher’s project.” So I was sitting there thinking, Well how the fuck am I going to do that? I don’t know Usher and I don’t know Jonetta (Usher’s mother/manager). So literally walking back to my office, I get a call from Marc Byers (manager of producers Dre & Vidal). Marc said they’re in New York and they have some Usher song. I said, “What?! Come to the office!”
MARC BYERS: I had this song called “Superstar” that Dre & Vidal had demoed. I thought it was perfect for Usher. So I gave Darrale Jones a call, walked over, played him the record and he loved it. He actually wanted me to give him a copy of it. I was like, “Nah, I’ll hold it, but if L.A. can listen to the record today I’ll wait around and if he loves it for Usher then I’ll give him a copy.”
JONES: So we’re sitting in my office and they play me “Superstar.” [After] the first 30 seconds I stopped it, called L.A. and said “I have a smash for Usher.” He said, “Come back to my office.” So me, Marc Byers, Dre & Vidal walked down the hall, I hadn’t even heard the rest of the song yet, but in my brain I was like, Well, if the words followed that melody, we’re good. We get in L.A.’s office and L.A. listens to it, stops it in the middle, starts it again—we listen to it three times––looks up, picks up the phone and calls Jonetta and Usher. He said, “Darrale Jones is flying to Atlanta. He has a song I need you to record. It’s incredible.”
JERMAINE DUPRI (PRODUCER): “Superstar” is amazing. That’s the one song on the album that I wish I wrote.
ANDRE “DRE” HARRIS (PRODUCER, ONE-HALF OF DRE & VIDAL): Faith Evans sang background on the bridge of “Superstar.” They forgot to add her on the credits.
DUPRI: A lot of Confessions was done before we started. That’s why I never felt like his album was a Thriller or an album that could do 10 million. Because I felt like we created this story but the rest of the producers weren’t involved with making the story. But what it made me realize was it’s not just about story, it’s about a great album. The records that I did mixed with the records that he had done with the other producers just created one of the best R&B records still today. Like “Caught Up” is in the “Confessions” vein.
HARRIS: Actually [Usher] wasn’t feeling [“Caught Up”].
PITTS: I remember we were trying to get [Usher] to do “Caught Up” but he wasn’t really [feeling it]. We was in Vac Studios in Atlanta, so I had a bunch of girls come through and we turned the studio into a party to that song on repeat. When he walked in we pressed play and saw everybody dancing and wil’n out. That’s how we sold him on that song.
JONES: We had the beat to “Caught Up.” So we’re playing the beat and Usher is in the studio in artist mode, leaning against the wall. I’m just meeting him, so I don’t know him like that. I’m like, Usher, this record is crazy. He’s like, “Man, I don’t know, Jones. I’m not really feeling it.” Usher and Chili were in the room, so I’m trying to really get Usher focused to go ahead and start this song. Long story short, Usher leaves then [comes back]. The beat was looped and there were some girls in the studio kind of dancing in the middle of the console. Usher opens the door, peeks in and sees the girls reacting to the beat, and goes right in and cuts the vocal. I was like, “Thank you Lord!”
RICO LOVE (SONGWRITER): “Throwback” was the first song I ever wrote. I was signed to Usher as a rapper. I went to Usher and said, “I need some money.” He was like “I could give you some money, but you’ll just spend it and need more money. So how about I give you an opportunity to make your own money?” Back then I was putting melodies in my raps so he said I feel like you should write songs. So he gave me this crazy Just Blaze track.
DUPRI: L.A. Reid makes records according to the hot producer. He goes around and touches every hot producer at the time. In hip-hop at the time Just Blaze was crushing it with the Roc. Usher had these roots where he was connected to New York by being under Puff’s tutelage in the beginning. So Usher had a New York connection. [“Throwback”] kind of fit that element of his life.
LOVE: Usher called me [after he first heard it] and was going crazy. The first thing he said was “Nigga, this shit is crazy. You got one.” I’m buggin out because at this point in our relationship I didn’t even have his phone number. Then he let me write a bridge on “Seduction.” [Ed note: “Seduction” appeared as a bonus track on Confessions’ Special Edition re-release.]
PITTS: [Rico] had something with him so I wasn’t surprised that he [could] write a song. I was surprised that his first joint was that fire!
KAWAN PRATHER (A&R CONSULTANT FOR USHER, BEST FRIEND): [Later on, Usher] felt he could do without [“Throwback”]. It was a record I was advocating because it was so black. When you think about it, it really doesn’t fit. It doesn’t sound like anything else [on the album]. It just felt really good. So first was the perfect place for it. There were some stronger issues between Usher and Rico but ultimately my concern was that record needed to be there regardless. It felt best.
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