In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in history Billboard The Hot 100, starting with the chart’s inception in 1958, works its way up to the present day.
Usher Raymond was a star long before 2004 and he was a star for years after. He’s a star now though. Usher may not chart as reliably as he once did, but he can still become a viral sensation out of nowhere. It happened just a few months ago, when a moment of beautifully hammy showmanship from the Tiny Desk Concert reached meme status. But nothing in the man’s career, before or after, can match what Usher did in 2004, the year he truly had the charts. For this one year, Usher was giving up numbers. I can imagine label bean counters looking back at Usher in 2004 and weeping softly, longing for the days they can’t get back.
In 2004, the music industry was in trouble. The industry was several years past the peak of the CD sales boom. The labels and their lawyers had succeeded in bringing Napster to its knees, but a ton of other file-sharing services were popping up to fill that hole. The iTunes music store hadn’t yet emerged as a moneymaker, and labels were mad that they had to do business on Steve Jobs’ terms, selling all their songs for just a dollar apiece. Young people just weren’t buying music anymore. Things looked grim. But even amidst all that doom and gloom, Usher Confessions appeared as a true blockbuster, a monster in four quarters.
Earlier this week, when I wrote about Usher’s maddeningly dominant club klaxon “Yeah!,” I called Confessions “a Thriller for the post-Napster era.” But the better comparison might be Fleetwood Mac Rumors, the messiest all-around mess of the 1960s. In the context of Confessions, “Yes!” was a glorious aberration, an anthemic hook-fest that felt bigger than any human being. For most people ConfessionsHowever, Usher and his colleagues were after something else. They wanted to create art that would build on Usher’s image that was already out there in the world, and they wanted people to invest in Usher’s personal narrative. That narrative turned out to be convincingly messy, and the convincing blunder worked as well to sell records in 2004 as it did in 1977.
Most of Confessions is lush, soulful R&B about a Byzantine romantic journey. “Yes!” gained worldwide attention, but “Burn,” the second single from Confessions, gave a better idea of what Usher was trying to do. Usher had wanted to release “Burn” as the album’s first single, but “Yeah! landed too fast. But in the end, “Burn” blew up almost as big as “Yes!” and it replaced “Yes! top of the charts. These two back-to-back hits meant Usher held the #1 spot for an uninterrupted 19-week run, the longest in history at that point. When Billboard unveiled its annual card at the end of 2004, “Yes!” and “Burn” sat at #1 and #2, and Usher was the first artist to hold the top two spots on that chart since The Beatles in 1964. At that moment, the world was buying what Usher was selling.
Here’s the main piece of context you need for “Burn”: Usher once proposed to TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas in the middle of sex. Usher told the world about this moment of psychic behavior in a Rolling stone cover story a few weeks before ‘Burn’ hit #1: “She was like, ‘You’re going crazy.’ Thank God she didn’t take me seriously. It was just that I felt so good, you know?” I’m not telling this story just because it is extremely funny but also to show that Usher, even at his giddy peak, was a very young man who was making some crazy brash decisions. And nothing makes for better drama than insane freako dumdum decisions.
Chilli, seven years Usher’s senior, was already a star when Usher first appeared in Atlanta trying to land a record deal. The two got together when Usher was around 22 years old and Chilli was around 29 years old and were together for several years. They broke up in early 2004, when Usher had just finished working on Confessions. Usher had been cheating and Chilli dumped him after he realized it. In a radio interview shortly after the breakup, Chilli told the world that Usher had committed “the absolute no-no.” In that Rolling stone story, Usher says, “She went on the radio and talked about it; I couldn’t believe she had done this.”
Chilli may have done Usher a favor. In Complicated interview a decade after the release of the album, the main Usher Confessions Collaborator Jermaine Dupri said he had been trying to figure out how to get the public interested in Usher as a person, rather than just a hit singer: “When we first started making this record, Usher was considered a pure artist . He had broken records, but he was not in the media. The media only cares about those who are doing dirty, doing crazy shit. It’s the boys who collect these [magazine] shields.” Just as Dupri was trying to introduce the idea of Usher doing dirt, doing crazy shit, Chilli came along and confirmed it.
Jermaine Dupri was upset that magazines weren’t very interested in putting Usher on their covers, even after all the success he had already achieved. Usher, Dupri and their colleagues wrote about all kinds of romantic situations Confessions. Usher himself had not personally been through all of these situations, but the song still fueled the rumors. (For another Confessions Topping the charts, Dupri wrote about his own romantic life and Usher sang it like he was talking about himself. This column will get to that soon.) “Burn,” however, really was an explanation of what was going on in Usher’s life, even though Usher himself was not the main songwriter.
Usher is credited with “Burn”, but the song was co-written by Jermaine Dupri and his regular collaborator Bryan-Michael Cox. Dupri and Cox had previously collaborated on Usher’s #1 hit “U Got It Bad,” and Dupri was chasing that success again. In Complicated The story, Dupri says, “‘Burn’ was me trying to do an extension of what I already did with ‘U Got It Bad.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to do another album like ‘U Got It Bad’ because the obsession with ‘U Got It Bad’ was crazy.””’U Got It Bad’ had already been an experiment Dupri to reclaim success Usher’s first chart-topper “Nice & Slow” Jermaine Dupri clearly isn’t too worried about repeating himself.
Musically, “Burn” is right up there with Usher. Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox co-produced the track, and they knew how to combine an older R&B sound with the sonic template of Atlanta rap without the fusion sounding forced. “Burn” is slow and owes a lot to Babyface. The shimmering acoustic guitars and super-fake synth strings would have been pulled straight from any ’80s Babyface song, but the itchy 808 hi-hats and ringing robot sounds are pure Atlanta. (Notably, that hi-hat programming never went away; it still appears on most songs that reach #1 these days.) Usher glides over that track. At times he sounds like a vintage soul singer, easily slipping into his falsetto when his emotions get out of hand. But Usher also marshals his vocals like a rapper, riding the beat’s bounce so effortlessly it seems second nature.
Still, “Burn” isn’t an effortless song. Instead, it’s a song about going through bad times and realizing you screwed up. As the song opens, Usher delivers a soulful spoken word monologue. His voice sounds seductive, even though he’s dumping someone: “I feel like it’s running out and it’s better for me to let it go now than to hold on and hurt you.” Usher says the words burn in his throat him, but he has to come out and say it anyway. As Usher begins to sing, he makes it clear that this woman wants to be with him, and he’s the one calling it quits: “You really want to work it out, but I don’t think you’ll change/ I will. , but you don’t, think we better go our separate ways.” In the chorus, Usher’s voice is soft and vulnerable, but his words are downright cold: “Gotta let it go ’cause the party ain’t jumping as before.
When he’s in the middle of a relationship with this girl, Usher sings that she has to “let it burn.” But when Usher reaches the second verse, he realizes he’s made a mistake and that he’s “sending pages I’m not supposed to.” Usher is with someone else, but he misses the woman he left: “The feeling ain’t the same/ Feel me calling her your name.” He doesn’t know what he’s going to do without his bullshit, and there’s nothing he can do to bring her back. He is the one who needs to be burned.
Throughout “Burn,” Usher sounds anguished—first because he hates breaking someone else’s heart, and then because his own heart turns out to be the one he’s broken. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Usher’s character in “Burn.” He was the one who messed everything up and he knows it. Still, “Burn” works because that kind of self-recrimination is a pretty universal thing, and because Usher sings it so beautifully. In “Burn,” he’s fluid and slippery, but he still expresses pain and regret. His voice dances over the beat, finds the groove but still delivers emotional fireworks: “Then many days! Then many hours! I am still burning until you’re back-tuuuuuurn!” Like Michael Jackson before him, Usher relates almost as much to hoo-hoo-hoo ad-lib as he does to actual words.
“Burn” didn’t capture the zeitgeist like “Yeah! did. On “Burn,” Usher doesn’t chase trends. Instead, he and his collaborators make subtle changes to update classic soul tropes, and the song comes out sounding hard and soft and evil and vulnerable all at once. In his Complicated interview, Jermaine Dupri tries to explain the song’s appeal: “It was bouncy and it was dope, but it sounded like pure R&B music. It has no essence or hardness to it. It’s almost like “She’s Out Of My Life” to me, the Michael Jackson album. That’s how I feel when I listen to the song — like someone’s crying.” (“She’s Out Of My Life” peaked at #10. It’s #5.)
The Jake Nava-directed “Burn” video largely follows the narrative arc of a number of other R&B videos from its era. Moon runs around this fine mansion of his and thinks of the woman who is no longer there. (Jessica Clark, a model who later ran True Blood, plays the woman.) The visual hook is how things around Usher’s house — his pool, his bed, the giant picture of the girl on his wall — light up when he thinks about her. At the climax of the video, Usher dances in front of a gorgeous vintage car while palm trees all around him light up. Even in his saddest videos, Usher can’t stop dancing. That’s who he is.
When “Burn” took over for “Yes!” atop the Hot 100, I got bored of the song pretty quickly. I wanted more songs with the relentless energy of “Yes!” and I did Confessions had more songs like this. These days I find it easier to admit that “Burn” is a real craft. The song isn’t visceral, and it doesn’t grab me in the same way, but it’s a beautifully crafted pop song that evokes heartbreak. It’s also much more representative of what Usher was doing with Confessions. Apparently no one was angry Confessions to be much softer than “Yes!” might have implied. When “Burn” ended its run at #1, Confessions was five times platinum and the album career was still just beginning. We’ll be seeing Usher in this column again soon.
THE CHARACTERS: 8/10