It all begins with a sigh.
On Usher’s fourth and unquestionably best studio album, the R&B singer sets the tone of the record before a word is ever spoken on his “Intro,” inviting the listener into an hour-long journey of vulnerability, joy, heartbreak and, somehow, redemption. For it is on this record that Usher uses a confession of infidelity — and subsequent pregnancy — to traverse the moral and emotional landscape of contemporary romance. It is uncomfortable subject matter for a listener more inclined to revel in the syrupy R&B of the past. But that is also what makes Confessions such a compelling record.
Bridging musical genres and stylistic eras (through both subject matter and production style), Confessions is an album set apart, and a masterpiece of tone and sound. Here, Usher asks us to sympathize with the philanderer, the heartbreaker. And we do. With a lesser artist, this may be impossible for the listener, but Usher’s charms are unfailing. By the end of this 17-track triumph, even the most buttoned-up listener can’t help but understand the true message of the record: A mistake is only as grave as we make it.
Bursting onto the music scene at only 16 years old with his self-titled debut album, Usher was primed to win the swooning hearts of teen girls everywhere. On his sophomore breakthrough album, My Way, released when he was 18, the singer began to mature, with songs progressing from the handholding of his debut’s “Think of You” to the new bedroom antics of “Nice & Slow.”
His maturity grew even further on 8701, his third album. Released after a four-year break that saw the musician tour around the world, experiment with acting and become a bona fide celebrity, the album also gave us quick glimpses of a new Usher. If his debut album was about the thrill of new romance and My Way focused on evolving sensuality, then 8701 was about the excitement of life as a young man and celebrity.
But Confessions, released in the spring of 2004, is a different type of record, one that uses storytelling as a narrative device. Surprisingly, it was still a relatively uncommon means of structure at the time, at least in the world of R&B. Here, Usher uses the album as a means of blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Was the entirety of the record an admission of guilt, or was it a moment to tell a greater story — on the pressures of modern love, on the ease of infidelity, on the new essence of celebrity culture?
If Usher was pushed and pulled in the world of entertainment, made to spur gossip and sell magazines and keep the churn of celebrity moving, then he would reclaim the narrative about himself, or at least shape it into one with a created and defined beginning, middle and end. 2004 was merely the beginning of the celebrity culture that would come to define the decade, one that was invasive, negative and built on a house of lies. The celebrity allure — and how we consumed their art — would never be the same once the new decade hit, something that Usher may have predicted with Confessions. But rather than shy away from the changing tides, Usher leaned into it, creating a record that uses manufactured salaciousness with apparent ease.
“Look how far we’ve come. These are my confessions,” Usher says in the album’s introduction. What comes next won’t be painless, but it is necessary and, perhaps, even healing.
The decision proved to be successful. Confessions has gone on to sell more than 15 million copies, making it the best-selling album by a Black artist in the 21st century. Billboard named Confessions the second best album of the 2000s and No. 16 on their Top 200 Albums of All Time list. Rolling Stone ranked the album at 432 on their Top 500 Albums of All-Time list in 2020.
In the years since its release, we’ve seen blockbuster records from other Black artists of the genre like Beyoncé or debuts by new millennial icons such as Rihanna and Frank Ocean. But, surprisingly, none have matched the sheer ubiquitousness of this record. If Confessions is a megahit of a bygone era, it’s one that continues to stand the test of time, still gaining new fans in the present.
After the intro, “Yeah!” blasts the listener like the thump of a bass in the club. It’s a stark departure from Usher’s previous sound, but a firm declaration of everything Usher can encompass. More than just an R&B singer or a teen dream, Usher is a bona fide star, easily slipping between genres, experimenting in sound and pushing against expectations to delight listeners.
It is funny, too, because Usher himself pushed against the easily recognizable “hit” status of “Yeah!” Perhaps it was too much of a departure, or the world knew what Usher hadn’t even realized about himself — that he is more than just a crooner. Thankfully, with label insistence (and a leak from Lil Jon to radio stations), “Yeah!” made it to the album and cemented Usher’s legacy on the music scene. Although “Yeah!” does not set the sonic tone for the record, it does introduce us to a “new” Usher, and what listeners are about to hear on the remaining 15 tracks is not the same old Usher.
The warm production of “Throwback” is the perfect immediate palate cleanser to “Yeah!” Featuring a sample of Dionne Warwick’s 1973 track “You’re Gonna Need Me,” the song, produced by then-rising producer Just Blaze, is firmly rooted in the emerging sound of the early aughts (heard from other producers like Kanye West, who rapped on the “Confessions Part II (Remix)” from the special-edition version of the album released later that year).
Warm, nostalgic and lush, it’s the kind of song that embeds itself in the hearts of listeners. It is a perfect deep cut that deserves more praise than it initially received and a crisp encapsulation of the era in music.
Four tracks in, “Confessions (Interlude),” originally titled “All Bad,” was the first track recorded for the record and sets its true tone. It is on this track — produced by Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox — where listeners get to the heart of the story. The story, one that includes infidelity and pregnancy, was largely rumored to be about Usher. In truth, it was actually Dupri’s journey.
But that did not stop heightened public and tabloid interest, and Usher was especially coy in detailing what was and was not accurate. Only a man this charming could pull off such a feat. During this era, Usher was in a relationship with beloved TLC singer Chilli. Fans were invested, not just because of who Usher is, but because of what the couple represented — the triumph over tragedy, the power of Black love, the union of teen dreams. Would he hurt a woman we all know and love? And could we accept it?
Here, audiences were beginning to enter an era of celebrity culture rooted in seediness and fallibility. The rapid proliferation of the internet coupled with a public thirst for celebrity gossip made the blunt storytelling of Confessions too juicy to deny. And who was Usher to deny that interest?
Inspired by Dupri’s failings, the production duo crafted some of their best work to date on this record. Take “Confessions Part II,” which hinges both on a persistent instrumentation that worms its way into one’s ear and a seamless delivery by Usher, who glides across each word as if he’s memorized them by heart. The track is not an easy one to consume lyrically, further traversing the bombshell landscape of the previous track, “Confessions (Interlude),” but Usher has a way of making even the most shocking of admissions seem forgivable.
“Burn,” also produced by Dupri and Cox, could be seen as the conclusion of a mini-trilogy encompassing the previous two songs. If the “Interlude” was about confession to oneself and “Part II” was an admission to his love, “Burn” is about the push and pull of a relationship fractured. Does he try to make it work or does he just “let it burn?” By the next track, “Caught Up,” it’s clear Usher is more content to wade within the muddy waters of complicated love.
The last single released from the album, “Caught Up,” reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remains a fan-favorite. Buoyant and effervescent, the track is something of a break from the album’s heavier singles, which was likely due to how the song was recorded. According to a story by MTV News, Usher used Confessions as a moment to branch out from his previous steady line of producers. “Caught Up” is the first of three Confessions tracks produced by Philadelphia production duo Dre & Vidal. Usher reportedly asked for a “real up-tempo beat,” and the duo set the scene during the recording session.
“That song is a party record because we really partied the whole time we were working on it,” Dre told MTV. “We had some women, some drinks, some music.” Later, they went to Club 112 in Atlanta. On the ride to the club, they played the track in Usher’s truck, where it was clear everyone enjoyed the sound.
Unlike popular R&B and hip-hop songs of the time, Confessions only includes a handful of music samples. The second can be heard on “Superstar,” which samples singer, songwriter and producer Willie Hutch’s song “Mack’s Stroll/The Getaway (Chase Scene)” from the soundtrack for the 1973 blaxploitation film, The Mack. The sample’s leisurely quality complements Usher’s dreamy vocals, which often glide across the bass like a warm breeze. His initial vocal riff, heard around the 0:14 second mark on the track, even became a social media challenge on TikTok and Instagram, created by the music media platform, They Have the Range. Popular ’90s and aughts R&B vocalist Faith Evans provides backing vocals, which can be heard most distinctly on the song’s bridge.
“Truth Hurts” is a glossy throwback that could have been released by popular groups of yore like The Dells or The O’Jays. Featuring production work by ’80s and ’90s wonders Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the track bridges the gap between eras of R&B. If the sounds of Dre & Vidal or Just Blaze were the present and Lil John was the future, then Jam and Lewis’ contributions (which comprise the next three tracks on the record), root Confessions in a lineage of the recent past.
Usher may be known for his ballads, but one could argue “Bad Girl,” one of the album’s unreleased tracks, is Usher at his finest. The thing that makes Usher so compelling is not just his dancing or his vocals or his charisma — it’s the way he combines all three, so effortlessly and in unique ways.
“Bad Girl” is an acrobatic track. Usher jumps and glides and dashes across the record (also produced by Jam and Lewis), as if in pursuit. The female protagonist may symbolically be the dexterous guitar riffs that mimic the sway of a woman’s strut. Usher’s pronunciation and swagger here is full of yearning and sensuality. Together, it makes for a perfect match.
Before Robin Thicke — who co-wrote and co-produced “Can U Handle It?” — broke through in the R&B world, found crossover mainstream appeal with his uber hit “Blurred Lines” and eventually went on to write his own Confessions-inspired “infidelity album,” Paula, he was a struggling producer and singer-songwriter. Thicke’s work for Confessions came between his debut album and his breakthrough and, unsurprisingly, even features backing vocals by his then-wife and muse, the actress Paula Patton. Pro J, his frequent co-producer and collaborator, also worked on the track.
“Take Your Hand,” the album’s penultimate track, contains the final sample in Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ song “Is There a Place for Me?” through that super slick bass. Besides serving as the structure of the track (which has rather simple production), the sample in some rays mirrors the lyrical content of “Take Your Hand.” Sung by a beloved soul icon of the past (Teddy Pendergrass), the track asks, how does one get back into their lover’s good graces? Sixteen tracks later, Usher is still unsure.
What Confessions most singularly accomplished was usurping the tropes of R&B music — full of romance and devotion and sensuality — and laying bare the actual reality of contemporary relationships. Love in the new millennium is not simple, but it is still thrilling to experience all of it, even if it ends in heartbreak. As many predicted, the album was a success, not just because the songs were a smash, but because the lyrics themselves told of a reality many understood intimately. No one is perfect, not even our favorite singers.
Love is not clean or perfect or linear. Sometimes we hurt the ones we love, and we must atone for our sins. Laid bare, Usher gives us no chance to hate him while in the midst of tearing apart himself and his actions. Before we’ve spent too long processing his deeds, we are back to loving him again. All is forgiven when the melodies are that good.
Britt Julious is a writer, editor, essayist and storyteller for publications like* The New York Times*, Vogue, Bon Appétit, Esquire, ELLE, Women’s Health and others. She’s currently a music critic for the* Chicago Tribune*, serves as the editorial director of Cancer Wellness magazine and previously worked for Vice’s THUMP. In 2019, she won the Studs Terkel award in journalism.