In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Usher’s Confessions, which went to No. 1 on April 10, 2004, where it stayed for five weeks, returning for another three weeks on May 22 and a final week on June 19.
In the world of contemporary urban music, no figure is more loathed than the A&R rep, those faceless label suits that fans scapegoat for every career misstep their favorite artists make. Of course, few fully understand what an A&R rep does, but here’s what we do know: They’re the people who kill otherwise promising careers with bad decisions—the meddlesome parties responsible for every frustrating album delay, every ill-fitting crossover attempt, and every shoehorned Wale guest verse. Basically, whenever a rapper or R&B singer’s new album doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped, there’s an A&R rep to blame.
For the most part, that’s healthy. Especially as labels have grown increasingly risk averse over the last decade, the wait for a major urban album to hit the market has become so frustrating that it’s cathartic to have a vaguely defined boogieman to point fingers at when something inevitably goes wrong. But here’s the dirty secret about A&R reps: Sometimes they get it right, and albums really can turn out better for their intervention.
Usher’s Confessions is one of the ultimate cases in point. The best-selling record of 2004, it has moved more than 10 million copies in the United States and twice that worldwide, along the way smashing all sorts of chart records that only Adele could realistically dream about topping today. And it deserved to. It’s a great record, the consensus choice for best R&B album of the ’00s, and one of those rare big-budget productions where seemingly everything went right. Perhaps that success shouldn’t have been surprising, given the talent involved. Beyond the bankability of Usher, a charismatic star on the rise, Confessions assembled a murderers’ row of hip-hop and R&B’s hottest songwriters and producers of the era, including Jermaine Dupri, Lil Jon, Bryan-Michael Cox, Just Blaze, Rich Harrison, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Dre & Vidal, all of them on their A-game. Casts like that don’t line up themselves; there were plenty of guiding hands behind the scenes.
Usher had been groomed for stardom since before he was a teenager, and he’d always played the part well. Like many child stars, though, his showmanship often overshadowed his personality. Even on 2001’s 8701, his first truly adult album, Usher sold the hell out of the material without revealing much about himself. With Confessions, he and his team set out to change that. “I thought it was a good idea for people to know the dude,” Kawan Prather, one of Usher’s A&R reps at the time, told MTV. “The music has never been the question, but people tend to buy into the artist. The more they know about you, the more they feel like they’re there with you.”
As luck should have it, interest in Usher happened to be at an all-time high. The singer had attracted some attention for his relationship with TLC’s Chilli, and even more following tabloid rumors that he’d been unfaithful to her. Rather than go the usual damage-control route of denying or apologizing, saying whatever it took to preserve his spotless image, Usher steered into the curve. He conceded he’d cheated, channeling that guilt into Confessions, an album fixated on infidelity and its emotional aftermath. On his new songs Usher wasn’t the bad guy, per se, but he wasn’t the good guy, either. He was, for the first time in his career, complicated.
Before Confessions even had a release date, fans were abuzz over what personal revelations the record might contain, and Usher lobbed them a doozy with “Confessions Pt. 2,” a vivid vignette about a man coming clean after impregnating his mistress. Gossip columnists ran with stories about Usher’s love child, and given how fervently Usher played up the autobiographical nature of the album in interviews, they could be forgiven for taking the song at its word. As it happens, “Confessions Pt. 2” was based on a true story; it just wasn’t Usher’s. Jermaine Dupri later admitted the song was based on his experiences. Fans weren’t the only ones who had been fooled by the track. Usher’s ex Chilli also believed the song was about their relationship, Dupri recounted in a recent interview with Vibe.
Between the savvy pre-release marketing campaign and the best material of Usher’s career, Confessions had all the makings of a hit album. It was just missing one thing, his label contended: a knock-out lead single. Usher believed he had the perfect candidate in “Burn,” a sure-thing ballad, but Arista Records dismissed the song as too safe to be a lead single. They wanted something unexpected, something truly head-turning, so behind Usher’s back they recruited producer Lil Jon, whose rowdy crunk sound was on the cusp of hitting critical mass. To nearly everybody at the label who heard it, Lil Jon’s contribution “Yeah!” sounded like an instant hit, the killer club song they needed to launch the album with a bang, but Usher was unconvinced. His reps had to beg him to record it, and when he still waffled on releasing it, Lil Jon leaked the song to radio himself, where it took off as fast as everybody else expected it to.
“Yeah!” topped the Billboard charts for 12 weeks, until it was unseated by “Burn.” The twin singles went on to claim the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on Billboard’s 2004 year-end singles chart, marking the first time an artist had accomplished that feat since The Beatles 40 years prior with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” “Yeah!” proved to be the biggest single of Usher’s career, and it wasn’t the only song his A&R team had to twist his arm to include on the album. They also fought for “Throwback,” a gritty Just Blaze track that, along with “Yeah!,” lent more of a hip-hop edge to the album than Usher was comfortable with. It was that balance between hard sounds and soft sentiments that gave the album its character, though. Confessions would have been a less interesting album—and no doubt a lower selling one—had it been all rueful ballads.
In the years after Confessions, Usher continued to make autobiography his brand. A celebration of domestic bliss inspired by his marriage to his stylist Tameka Foster, his 2008 follow-up Here I Stand promised another intimate look into Usher’s personal life, only this time the material revealed how dull that personal life was—the album packed all the excitement of an afternoon at Bed Bath And Beyond. The public, it turns out, preferred Usher the lying philanderer to Usher the dotingly faithful husband. It didn’t help, either, that many of Usher’s biggest fans outright disdained Foster, with the fiercely unfair hate that’s reserved only for women whom the tabloids cast as controlling. Some fans outright celebrated Usher’s divorce the following year, a split that the singer addressed on 2010’s Raymond V. Raymond, another album that promised a front-seat view of Usher’s personal life.
The music industry, meanwhile, over-learned some of the lessons of Confessions. The same A&R intervention that gave Usher his biggest hit hasn’t worked nearly so well for other artists. Labels now routinely sit on R&B records until they can conjure a hit big enough to justify releasing them, a process that can lead to endless album delays. Increasingly, labels also began deferring to Confessions’ production-by-committee approach. In the ’90s, R&B albums were typically spearheaded by strong executive producers like Dupri, Babyface, Puff Daddy, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who employed comparatively tight circles of producers and songwriters. By the turn of the century, however, album credits had begun to swell, and in the wake of Confessions it became the norm, not the exception, for an R&B album to enlist as many as nine or 10 separate sets of producers. Urban albums grew ever more disjointed as a result.
That problem only grew worse in the late ’00s as Euro-pop dethroned urban music as Top 40’s party soundtrack of choice. Singers began slotting clubby dance songs into R&B albums, where they fit as conspicuously as commercial breaks. Usher, ironically, was the worst offender. His otherwise solid recent albums, including 2012’s Looking 4 Myself, kowtowed to Top 40’s Euro-dance appetite with some of the blandest mass-appeal club songs possible. Like too many focus-grouped contemporary urban albums, Usher’s recent releases make the mistake of sacrificing vision for budget. Confessions, however, proved that it was possible to have both.