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The entertainer
Usherís musicality sets him apart
BY SEAN RICHARDSON

It goes without saying that the two biggest pop albums of early 2004, Usherís Confessions (Arista) and Norah Jonesís Feels Like Home (Blue Note), have little in common. One of the most striking differences between them is their singlesí performance on the Billboard Hot 100: Usherís "Yeah!" has spent most of the year at #1 whereas Jonesís "Sunrise" has not even cracked the chart. Sure, that makes Jonesís sales numbers even more remarkable than they are on their own. But it also proves that the pop zeitgeist belongs to Usher alone, just as it did to his labelmates OutKast when they conquered radio and retail at the end of last year.

Usherís "Yeah!" does justice to the exclamation point in its title: itís more conventional than OutKastís "Hey Ya!" but no less booty-shakiní. The track tells a familiar tale of dance-floor seduction, with a crucial plot twist ("I got so caught up, I forgot she told me/Her and my girl used to be the best of homies") thatís easy to lose in the frantic sway of the chorus. Usher is a classy singer who knows his way around a high note, but heís not the only star of the show. The beats are courtesy of Lilí Jon, who uses the bubbly synths and playful growls of his signature "Get Low" as a blueprint. Ludacris joins the party on the bridge, spitting out a forceful rap that climaxes with a celebration of the ultimate playboy fantasy: "We want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed!"

Now that "Yeah!" has reached the saturation point on the airwaves, itís shaping up to be the biggest hit of Usherís career. Thatís no small feat: the 25-year-old Atlanta crooner has been all over the charts since 1994, when he emerged under the tutelage of R&B power broker Antonio "LA" Reid. Three years later, Usher came of age on the blockbuster My Way, which established him as one of the decadeís hottest teen heartthrobs and has sold six million copies. On the follow-up, 8701, he bolstered his impressive list of Top 10 singles and was rewarded with his first two Grammys.

Through it all, Usher has never strayed far from the R&B mainstream, so itís no surprise that Confessions is less stylistic progression than franchise extension. After Lilí Jon, the albumís marquee producer is Jermaine Dupri, the veteran melody man responsible for the majority of Usherís greatest hits. On the aching ballad "Burn," which has followed "Yeah!" into the Top 10, the star finds himself in a classic romantic tangle. "You hate the thought of her being with someone else/But you know that itís over," he sings, slipping in and out of a falsetto on the discís heartiest vocal performance.

Usherís real-life girl trouble landed him in the tabloids last fall, when TLCís Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas went on an Atlanta radio station and revealed that his infidelity had put an end to their romance. That incident imparts a voyeuristic thrill to the albumís third single, "Confessions Part II," on which Usher drops a bombshell: "My chick on the side said she got one on the way." Heís gone on record as saying the song is a true story about something that happened before he got involved with Chilli, but public perception remains focused on her. Regardless, "Confessions Part II" is a highlight: Usherís voice is full of regret, and Dupri gives him plenty of poignant hooks to work with.

Nothing else on Confessions is that provocative, but the hour-long disc is a solid collection of party anthems and slow jams. Usher brings in legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson) for the apologetic "Truth Hurts": this time, he worries that his girl might get angry enough about his misbehavior to "pull the hot grits out." Two tracks later, on the funk-guitar blowout "Bad Girl," heís back out on the prowl. The roster of A-list producers runs deep: Just Blaze (Jay-Z) drops one of his trademark soul samples on "Throwback," and Philly beatmasters Andre Harris and Vidal Davis deliver a backbeat the Neptunes would be proud of on "Caught Up."

Speaking of the Neptunes, who produced Usherís 2002 hit "U Donít Have To Call" but are absent here: Confessions begs comparison with one of their recent triumphs, Justin Timberlakeís Justified (Jive). As all-around entertainers, Usher and Justin are about even, but Usherís musicality stands out among pop stars of his generation. Even on late-album trifles like "Do It to Me" and "Take Your Hand," his lyrics and melodies rise above the high-priced grooves. Celebrity gossip aside, thatís what really got him to the top.


Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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