Usher: By the Numbers!
Number of listed tracks on this album: 17.
Number of these that are “intro” or “interlude” tracks: 3.
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Songs that are full-fledged club über-crunk salacious but not really dirty club bangers produced by Lil’ Jon with guest spots by Ludacris that, as of this writing, have been #1 on the pop charts for seven weeks in a row: 1 (“Yeah!”)
Reasons for the success of “Yeah!”: 5 (Lil’ Jon’s undeniable dirty groovemastery, Usher‘s smoove-ass singing, Luda’s guest rap, general theme of being in club and dancing and seeing lady who “from a 1 to 10 she’s a certified 20” and dancing with her and she’s all like “yeah!”, Lil’ Jon’s appearance in video spraying champagne all over).
Number of other songs that feature guest raps or crunk production: 0.
Amount of surprise this should occasion, given general template of success in R&B being what it is, which is to have as many guest rappers and producers as possible: Lots.
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Brilliance of follow-up single “Burn”: Intense, white-hot-flame-like.
Main reason for brilliance of “Burn”: Two-step concept of song, which goes like this. In Step One, Usher is breaking up with his girl, he’s not happy but he wants to move on, she’s really sad about this, she can’t deal with it, he feels bad for her but he knows that she’s going to have to deal with her sadness and suffer a little before she can accept it, he says “You know that it’s over / You know that it was through / Let it burn / Got to let it burn”. Then, in Step Two, he realizes that he misses her, that he’s made a huge mistake, he wants her back after letting her go which was a huge mistake, “It’s been fifty-eleven days / Umm-teen hours / I’m gonna be burnin’ / Till you return”.
Secondary reason for brilliance of “Burn”: Usher’s voice, which has only gotten better. Dude can just flat-out SANG, he proves that here, it’s an epic performance.
Recent songs ripped off by melody line of “Burn”: “Ignition (Remix)” by R.Kelly, “Don’t Wanna Try” by Frankie J.
Tertiary reason for brilliance of “Burn”: Jermaine Dupri’s production, combination of robot noises, fakey synth strings, and Babyface guitar lines. Extra points for not varying production techniques between Step One and Step Two, so it hits us harder.
Expected reign on pop charts for this single: Four weeks at #1, probably in May.
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Different song on Confessions that follows same Step One/Step Two template: “Truth Hurts.”
Step One of “Truth Hurts”: He at first accuses his paramour of creeping around with other men.
Example of said accusation: “Whatever you was workin’ / I hope it was worth it, baby / Truth hurts / I got reason to believe you’ve been foolin’ around”.
Step Two of “Truth Hurts”: He then admits that he’s only accusing her out of insecurity, because really it is Usher who has been fooling around on her, he’s copping to it.
Example of said copping: “I been blaming you when I’m the one that’s doin’ wrong / I’mma go on / A guilty conscience is the real reason I wrote this song”.
Main reason this song is better than “Burn”: It’s produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis rather than Jermaine Dupri. Dupri’s fine, but come on, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, holy shit, the sound textures here are so deep I call them the Marianas Trench. Plus, when we get to the crucial Step Two part, a big huge timpani sound enters the mix, we get a deceptive “ba ba ba ba ba” break, they stretch out the tension so that his confession REALLY hits hard.
Genius lyric: “I know that you gonna tear up the place / Punch me in my face / Pull the hot grits out”.
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Track that deals with same “I been creeping” theme: “Confessions, Part II.”
Salient point: This is the single wimpiest song on this theme ever. Usher spends the whole song alternately apologizing to his main lady for knocking up another girl that he barely even knows and then trying to guilt main lady into not breaking up with him, because he was at least man enough to tell her. “This is going to be the hardest thing I think I ever had to do”. It’s like, dude, seriously, you don’t get a pass on that. The spoken-word interlude on this is just craven: “This ain’t about my career, this ain’t about my life, it’s about us. Please.” Ew.
Meta-moment that doesn’t really work: Referring to the prelude called “Confessions” (where he gets the phone call telling him that the other woman is pregnant) in “Confessions, Part 2”: “How am I going to tell you / ‘Bout that chick from part one”.
Why it doesn’t really work: Usher says he barely knows the other lady, but in the prelude he’s already told us that it was his ex-girlfriend, that it’s been going on for a while, that he was even holding hands with her at the Beverly Center.
Hilarious moment: The Beverly Center! Specificity for no reason rules!
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Other songs that are as good as the aforementioned songs: 1 (“Throwback.”)
Reason “Throwback” is so dope: Just Blaze production, featuring a Dionne Warwick sped-up sample and what sounds suspiciously like the guitar/bass tones from my third favorite song of all time, “Have You Seen Her” by the Chi-Lites.
Number of other songs that I can actually remember off the top of my head: 0.
Even with Jam and Lewis working on “Simple Things” and “Bad Girl” and “That’s What It’s Made For”?: Oh, my bad, the funk-rock riff on “Bad Girl” is pretty god damned amazing. The rest of the song can’t live up to it, but that riff is like OH SNAP.
Even though the “It” in “That’s What It’s Made For” is Usher’s penis?: Oh, yeah, forgot about that one, that one’s really good too.
So you don’t like “Superstar,” where he says he’ll be the girl’s groupie because he loves her so much?: Naw, the Andre Harris and Vidal Davis production is too boringly smooth, kinda like their work with Jill Scott sounds now in retrospect.
Number of songs that one can actually fast-dance to on the album, total: 3.
Number of songs where Jermaine Dupri should earn a huge smackdown from Prince for ripping off “The Beautiful Ones” and “Adore” and “International Lover” all at the same time: 1 (“Do It To Me,” which is still kinda nice, especially when Usher heats up at the end with some very jazz-like scat/testifying, but still come on, that’s wrong, Dupri hasn’t earned the right to rip off Prince like that, Jam and Lewis don’t even do that anymore, damn.)
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Feeling that maybe this might be the best English-language pop album of the year: Strong.
Feeling that although this is the case that maybe Usher is just pretty much playing it by the numbers here, coasting on his charisma and incredible voice but not showing any depth or interest in depth, hardly actually connecting with his audience and certainly not confessing to anything: Strong.
Realization that no one really cares about this last opinion: Strong.
// Notes from the Road
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