Far beyond the extraordinary levels of success that Usher has already achieved in his meteoric rise to global superstardom as singer, composer, producer, film and television actor, businessman and philanthropist, 2004 managed to add even further levels of accomplishment to his profile. Consider the phenomenal success of his fifth album, Confessions, which (as of this writing) is certified 8-times RIAA platinum in the U.S. alone, has surpassed 11 million copies worldwide, and continues to sell about one million copies per month.
Released in March 2004, Confessions scanned a record-breaking 1.1 million units in its first week out, giving Usher his first #1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, and his first simultaneous #1 pop/#1 R&B; entry. (The full extent of the album’s historic first week will be detailed further, below.) The CD dominated the album charts throughout the year – spending a total of 12 weeks at #1 – as it spun off three consecutive #1 Pop/#1 R&B; hit singles: “Yeah!” (featuring Lil’ Jon & Ludacris), “Burn” and “Confessions Part II.”
Confirming the album’s chart-busting success was the decision, seven month’s after its initial release, to issue Confessions (Special Edition), a deluxe repackaged, redesigned, limited-edition version of the album (with a distinctive 3-D lenticular cover and 2×2 panel fold-out poster inside the jewel box) also including four bonus tracks. Among those bonus tracks was a fourth #1 pop/#1 R&B; hit single, “My Boo,” an electrifying duet with J Records artist Alicia Keys, produced by Jermaine Dupri for So So Def Productions, and co-produced by Manuel Seal. The video was directed on location in New York City by Chris Robinson.
“With every album, I try to better myself,” Usher said before the release of Confessions. “I’m a perfectionist and with the success of my last record [2001’s 8701], I wasn’t sure about where my growth should be – as a performer, as a vocalist. I always felt like I held something back on my albums – on every album, I was playing a ‘role’. This time, I decided to shake my fears and allow my personality to come through.”
Usher, who turned 25 during the recording of Confessions, had already experienced a lifetime under the lights – but was ready for more. Signed in 1993 by Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Babyface to their LaFace Records label in Atlanta, Usher was poised to begin his second decade as a recording megastar in 2004. This realization had a profound impact on him.
“I’m 25-years old,” he said, “and I’m dealing with my responsibilities as a man and I’m not afraid to speak, to be realistic and talk about the issues men deal with.” The new album’s title was no accident. “I’m telling on myself,” he admitted – confessed – and more than one song dealt with the paradox of honesty and dishonesty in personal relationships. Few artists are willing to tackle such weighty material, but Usher had matured into a different person in the intervening years between albums, a new man who was willing to confront life’s changes.
Getting Started: Usher
Born in Chattanooga on October 14, 1978, Usher Raymond was raised by his single mother (and manager) Jonnetta Patton, who moved him and his younger brother to Atlanta when Usher was 12. Mom brought up her sons within the foundations of faith and family afforded by St. Elmo’s Missionary Baptist Church, for which she served as choir director. As early as junior high school, Usher began entering local talent shows. He was performing at a “Star Search” competition at age 13 when he was spotted by an A&R; rep from LaFace who arranged an audition with L.A. Reid. A record contract soon followed. “I have been building my career since I was a little boy,” Usher explains, “because singing had always been what I wanted to do. At first I thought about playing [professional] football, then I wanted to play basketball, but in the end it was all about the music. It’s my biggest passion and my biggest joy.”
Usher was one month shy of his 15th birthday when his modest debut LaFace single made the R&B; chart in late-‘93, “Call Me a Mack,” from the movie soundtrack of John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. One year later, Usher, his self-titled debut album arrived, co-executive produced by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. It rose to #25 on the R&B; chart on the strength of three singles: “Can U Get Wit It,” “Think Of You” (top 10, written and produced by label mate Donell Jones, with a rap by Biz Markie), and “The Many Ways” (with Al B. Sure on backing vocals).
Over the next three years, Usher honed his skills as a stage performer, concentrated on graduating from high school, and laid the groundwork for his second album. Meanwhile, he was heard on “Let’s Straighten It Out,” a 1995 duet with fellow Atlanta teen and Rowdy/Arista artist Monica; and 1996’s “Dreamin’,” the first single from Rhythm Of the Games, LaFace’s Olympics benefit album.
At the same time, Usher was developing a working relationship with Jermaine Dupri, “so he got to see my life,” Usher said. “What we ended up writing and recording was about my life – about what I dealt with being a teenager going into manhood.” The advance single, “You Make Me Wanna” exploded at radio in late-summer 1997 and hit #1 R&B; in its second week out – the same week that My Way was released in September.
My Way, co-executive produced by L.A. Reid, Babyface and Dupri, marked the real genesis of Usher’s career as a star. “You Make Me Wanna” stayed at #1 R&B; for 11 weeks (the longest-charting R&B; hit in more than 3 years) and at #2 pop for 7 weeks (second only to Elton John’s “Candle In the Wind” tribute to Princess Diana). It remained on the R&B; chart for an unprecedented 71 weeks as Usher’s first RIAA certified platinum single. Into ’98, it segued into another massive platinum hit, “Nice & Slow” (a sensual ballad featuring Jagged Edge, with a video shot on location in Paris), the first of many Usher singles that would simultaneously reach #1 R&B; (for 8 weeks) and #1 pop (for 2 weeks). My Way, whose title tune single extended into the summer ’98 (#2 pop/#4 R&B;, also platinum), has gone on to earn 6-times platinum album sales in the U.S. alone.
At the end of the day, Usher received his first Grammy Award nomination as Best Male R&B; Vocal Performance for “You Make Me Wanna,” which was also nominated for a “Soul Train” Music Award as Best Male R&B;/Soul Single.
Usher hit the road on a series of engagements including a spot on Puffy’s No Way Out tour, dates with Mary J. Blige, and the opening spot on Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope tour. There were television appearances on the Billboard Music Awards, VIBE-TV, “The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show,” “Live with Regis & Kathy Lee,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Chris Rock Show,” Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” UNICEF’s “Gift Of Song,” Nickelodeon’s “Big Help-a-Thon,” and “All That.” Usher made his acting debut on UPN’s “Moesha” opposite Brandy, which resulted in a recurring role on the series, and his first lead role in a movie, the eerie 1998 thriller, “The Faculty.”
Usher’s extracurricular activities outside of the recording studio gathered momentum over the following year as he was cast in the daytime drama “The Bold and the Beautiful” and was seen in the family series “Promised Land.” He completed two more films, the Freddie Prinze, Jr. high school comedy “She’s All That,” and his first starring role in another high school-based drama, “Light It Up.” A subsequent role in the Disney tv movie “Geppetto” (with Drew Carey), “required me to step outside of what I do, especially as a dancer,” Usher recalled. “I looked at the work of people like Ben Vereen and Fred Astaire and doing that part definitely helped me increase my dancing vocabulary.”
Usher was also starting to involve himself in community activities as a role model to youth. He served as national spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Get Big On Safety” campaign, and appeared on NBC’s “Inside Stuff.” He participated in the NBA “Stay In School” program and performed at several of the franchises’ jamborees entertaining students while showing them the importance of education.
As touring continued and Usher’s concert audiences grew, it was a natural move to issue an album for his millions of fans. Live documented how much the material had changed since the earlier studio recordings. Most of the singles were reprised along with concert versions of some key album tracks, and a surprise or two (like the medley of Bobby Brown hits). The Queen bee Lil’ Kim showed up to add her risqué vocals to the slammin’ mid-tempo “Just Like Me,” and there were also guest performances by Jagged Edge, Trey Lorenz, Shanice, Twista, and Manuel Seal. As a bonus, the Live album wrapped up with remixes of “My Way,” “Nice & Slow” and “You Make Me Wanna.”
Usher’s unstoppable energy brought him back into the recording studio for his fourth album, 8701 (released August 7, 2001 – get it?). “I really analyzed myself as an artist and I’m really like a rapper who sings,” he said at the time. “I like to tell stories in my songs… I did a lot of writing this time. It was like an evolution and I was involved conceptually this time with every tune.”
His international appeal was evident when “Pop Ya Collar,” produced and co-written by Kevin “She’kespere” Briggs, was released outside the U.S. early in the year and became a #2 hit in the U.K. Back home, “U Remind Me” was the first new advance single, a tough, irresistible groove with melodic R&B; flavor produced by Philadelphia’s Edmund “Eddie Hustle” Clement. Exactly one month before the album’s release, “U Remind Me” simultaneously hit #1 pop/#1 R&B;, staying on top of both charts for 4 weeks.
One month after the album’s release, “U Got It Bad,” a slow jam written by Usher, Dupri and Brian Cox (in the “Nice & Slow” mold, “inspired by some of the singers I was listening to like Maxwell and Prince,” he told one writer), followed suit – #1 pop for 6 weeks and #1 R&B; for 7 weeks. “U Don’t Have To Call,” one of two tracks produced by the Neptunes, kept the heat on the singles charts into 2002, reaching #2 R&B; and #3 pop. (As an aside, Usher and Loon joined Puffy – by this time known as P. Diddy – on his runaway #2 Pop/#2 R&B; hit, “I Need a Girl,” which spent a half-year on the charts in ’02.)
By the time “Can U Help Me” (a collaboration with hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) was released as the fourth single from 8701 in late-summer 2002, the album had streaked past 4-times platinum – it has gone on to sell more than 8 million copies worldwide. The year closed out with an interesting trio of dramatic tv series appearances, all in November, on “The Twilight Zone,” “7th Heaven,” and Dick Clark’s “American Dreams” (portraying Marvin Gaye).
Because of Grammy deadline peculiarities of eligibility, “U Remind Me” was able to win the Best Male R&B; Vocal award at the ceremonies in February 2002; and “U Got It Bad” won the same award at the ceremonies one year later – making Usher the only artist besides Luther Vandross (more than a decade before) and Stevie Wonder (back in the ’70s) to win that award in consecutive years.
Setting chart records and winning a truckload of industry awards might have given another artist an excuse to rest on his (or her) laurels. In addition to his two Grammys, there were three Soul Train Music Awards, a BET Award, a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award, two Teen Choice Awards, three Billboard Music Awards, three R&B; Hip Hop Conference Awards, three ASCAP Awards, a Blockbuster Music Award, not to mention countless other international awards from several countries. But true to his nature, Usher’s drive would enable him to outdo himself once again as 2004 began.
Confessions was released just as “Yeah!” was in its 6th week at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 5th week at #1 on the Hot R&B;/Hip-Hop Singles chart. The album’s 1.1 million unit first week was not only the highest first week numbers ever scanned by a male R&B; artist in Soundscan’s 13-year history (breaking R. Kelly’s record of 540k for TP-2.com back in 2000) – but also the highest first week scans by any male artist since Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP (also in 2000, with 1.7 million units). As icing on the cake, Usher’s success marked the biggest debut week in the 30 years of Arista’s existence, breaking the 689k record held since 1997 by Notorious B.I.G.‘s posthumous “Life After Death.”
Confessions obliterated several other long-standing chart records:
The highest overall R&B; (non-Hip-Hop) debut in the Soundscan era, surpassing Destiny’s Child’s Survivor in May 2001 (#1, with 663k units);
The highest solo R&B; (non-Hip-Hop) debut in the Soundscan era, surpassing Alicia Keys’ Songs In A Minor in June 2001 (#1, 618k units);
The highest overall debut in BMG and Arista history, surpassing Notorious B.I.G.‘s Life After Death in March 1997 (#1, with 689k units);
The highest single-week scan in Arista history, surpassing the 2nd week of The Bodyguard soundtrack in December 1992 (#1, with 1.061 million);
The highest overall debut of 2004, surpassing Norah Jones’ Feels Like Home in February (#1, with 1.022 million).
That was in March – by April, sales were past 2 million and shipments past 3 million, “Yeah!” was still at #1 and the second single, “Burn,” was moving up the top 5 – and the word phenomenon was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. By May 1st, when Usher appeared as the musical guest on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Soundscan sales were past 3 million and a third single, “Confessions II,” was working its way towards the top 10.
The final week of May began in Los Angeles, with the announcement of the 4th annual BET Awards nominations, as Usher was named in four categories: Best Male R&B; Artist, and Video Of The Year, Best Collaboration, and Viewers’ Choice, all for “Yeah!” Two days later, the chart news was official: With “Burn” in its second week at #1, “Yeah!” at #4 (after 12 weeks at #1), and “Confessions II” at #9, Usher became only the third lead artist in pop music history – but the first solo artist – to have three singles inside the top 10 on the Hot 100, since the Beatles in 1964 and the Bee Gees in 1978.
At the June 29th BET Awards telecast (with Confessions past 4 million sales), Usher won the Best Male R&B; Artist award and “Yeah!” won the Viewers’ Choice award. Exactly two months later on August 29th, Usher interrupted his sold-out North American tour (with Kanye West and Christina Milian) to pick up the first two MTV VMAs of his career. After opening the show’s first-ever broadcast from Miami Beach with a live performance of “Yeah!”, Usher went on to win Best Male Video and Best Dance Video for the hit.
On September 16th, the World Music Awards departed from its traditional site in Monaco to stage its first global telecast from Las Vegas. The show, broadcast on the ABC network in the U.S., found Usher on the receiving end of three awards: Best Male Artist, Best Male Pop Artist and Best R&B; Artist. Confessions had now moved past the 5 million mark.
With Tuesday, October 5th set as the release date for Confessions (Special Edition), a special event was arranged at the Virgin Megastore Union Square in New York City. A limited number of fans who had pre-paid on the Friday before, for their copy of the album, were given exclusive passes to meet Usher at the store on Monday night, as the Soundscan numbers officially started to total at midnight. Six days later, at the annual Source Hip-Hop Music Awards in Miami on October 11th, “Yeah!” won as the R&B;/Rap Collaboration of the Year and Usher was named Male R&B; Artist of the Year. (His “My Boo” partner Alicia Keys was named Female R&B; Artist of the Year.)
Two weeks later and an ocean away, Usher was named Top Male Artist at the first annual Nordic Music Awards broadcast on October 25th, as fans in Norway, Denmark and Sweden cast their votes by sending cell phone text messages to a specific number. The very next night, at the Aladdin Hotel-Casino back in Las Vegas, Usher was on hand to perform and pick up three Radio Music Awards, as he was named Artist of the Year – Hip Hop/Rhythmic Radio, Cingular Artist of the Year, and “Yeah!” won as Song of the Year – Hip-Hop/Rhythmic Radio.
The awards season barreled on November 15th at the ABC network telecast of the 32nd annual American Music Awards from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmell. Usher’s avalanche of awards continued, as he won all four categories in which he was nominated, including Favorite Male Artist and Favorite Album (Confessions) in both the Pop/Rock and Soul/R&B; categories. Four nights later at the MTV Europe EMAs in Rome, Usher added two more awards to his stash, for Best Male and Best Album.
On Thanksgiving Day – never a holiday for the charts! – Billboard announced that Usher was starting his 6th week at #1 with “My Boo” featuring Alicia Keys. That gave Usher a total of 28 weeks at #1 in 2004 – the week before, he became the only artist in history ever to top the Hot 100 for more than half a year. The 2004 Billboard Music Awards special is set to air live on the Fox network on December 8th from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
With a career that keeps taking him to new heights of achievement and accomplishment, Usher remains – in his own words – “the master of the moment. I feel like I’m in the prime of my life, physically, emotionally, spiritually – and musically. And knowing there is still love for me in the marketplace, that gives me energy.” Indeed, there is love for Usher and his music the world over and that’s one “confession” he can make without a doubt. Usher is The Ultimate Entertainer.