Usher Raymond’s diamond-selling album Confessions turns 11 this year and dare I say it, but it may very well be our generation’s Thriller. Confessions garnered every accolade under the sun except for ‘Album of the year’ at the Grammy’s (He lost out to Ray Charles). Usher and his dream-team of producers which included the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Brian Michael-Cox, Jimmy Jam and Terry and Lil Jon, created an undeniable classic that will never fade. Looking at Usher’s career now, you could wonder if the success of Confessions set the bar too high for him. Not saying that he’s begging us to buy his records these days, but Confessions might be the best R&B album of the past 11 years. Some may argue that Justin Timberlake’s Futuresex/Lovesounds holds that crown, but even though Justin always has R&B elements, his records are generally pop.
Remember 2004’s music scene? Atlanta’s crunk sound had taken over, 50 Cent and G-Unit could do no wrong, a producer turned rapper named Kanye West released his debut album College Dropout, Jay-Z had just retired a year prior, R. Kelly was facing rape charges, and Beyoncé was now a solo superstar. The R&B genre in ’04 was dominated by females such as Destiny’s Child, Ciara, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott and Brandy. The fellas that year were slacking, which was the perfect time for Usher to step in and fill that void. Ever since he came on the scene in the 90’s he was always presented as the next “Big Thing” in R&B, but he was lacking that top selling album that would put him far ahead of the pack, like a Purple Rain, Thriller, Don’t Be Cruel or 12 Play. Around that time Justin Timberlake went solo from N’Sync and the comparisons between the two just wouldn’t go away. It was almost like the Michael Jackson versus Prince arguments in the 80’s. Usher growing tired of the comparisons, decided to step it up a notch. He hit the studio in 2003 to work on his follow up to 2001’s 8701. He and his team recorded 50 plus tracks. Of those, 17 of them became Confessions. The real challenge came when it was time to present the material. How would they market Usher’s new work?
Rumors began to swirl after Usher and Chilli’s break-up. The word was that on his new album he was going to provide an inside look at their relationship. Although Usher denied cheating, the public figured this was the only way that this great looking couple could ever part. The marketing was brilliant because it sparked everyone’s curiosity. This was right before the social media craze that provides updates on the lives of celebrities. We had to wait and buy the album to hear what an artist had to say. Sounds like torture right?
What we got was a masterpiece of top tier production, machismo, honesty and raw emotion. Confessions was a play by play of Mr. Raymond painting his soap opera life for us all to see. Legend has it that before Jermaine Dupri came on board, Usher’s label boss LA Reid said the album was lacking something. Jermaine and writer Sean Garrett brainstormed in the studio and decided since the public wanted to know the details of him and Chilli’s breakup, they’d give them what they wanted. From that, “Confessions Pt. 1 & 2” were born. On March 23, 2004 the album was released, and with $1 Million records sold in under a week, I’d say the plan worked.
Confessions didn’t just ride off of it’s controversy, It had something for everyone. From ballads like “Burn” and “Throwback” to high energy tracks like “Caught Up,” no bridge was left uncrossed. Usher was also very savvy and knew crunk was the popular sound, so he enlisted the “King of Crunk “ Lil Jon. Jon crafted “Yeah!” the first hit off the album. It was a sonically appealing track of a young playboy courting a beautiful young lady in a nightclub. What would follow soon after is hit after record setting hit on the Billboard charts. For the next 9 weeks Usher would own the Billboard 200 chart at the number 1 spot and have 3 number 1 songs on the Billboard top 100. Usher was now one of seventeen artists to sell one million copies in the first week. The album’s marketing made it a complete cross over success, but the body of work itself managed to live up to the hype.
No doubt about it Confessions was a huge release. I couldn’t help but wonder though, if it was partially because there wasn’t much competition for Usher. At that time R. Kelly was on the downside, Justin wasn’t consistent yet, and up until that point, women were running the charts. Jermaine Dupri has since shared that the story behind Confessions was loosely based on his life. Although that makes the experience bittersweet, Usher delivered it in a way that made us believe.