Usher's Confessions still sounds painfully honest 20 years on

Inspired by infidelity and heartbreak, the RnB album released in 2004 is full of the singer's most direct lyrics

Usher performs in Abu Dhabi in 2022. For 20 years, many songs on his album Confessions have featured in his live shows. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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What happens next when you have done it all? It’s a problem Usher faced 20 years ago when, aged 24, he was writing the songs for what became his seminal album Confessions.

While ambitious, his career at the time seemed more well-executed than powered by genuine artistic exploration.

All of his three preceding albums were well made, but lacked the kind of emotional urgency propelling the genre, such as those that led Marvin Gaye and Al Green to release important albums.

Then again, who has time for such soul-bearing when you are having too much fun? At the time, Usher was firing on all cylinders with the completion of a debut US arena tour and appearing in hit teen films The Faculty and She’s All That.

Despite the big screen opportunities and musical accolades, Usher reportedly felt creatively bereft and wondered whether he was capable of pulling off the kind of grand emotional albums released by his heroes. So instead of hiring new studio hands, he returned to producer and collaborator Jermaine Dupri to write a set of songs functioning as therapy sessions.

“There is a great deal of truth in that album,” Usher reflected in a recent interview with People. “We would sit around and I would say: 'Yo, check your egos at the door, and let's just really be honest. Everybody has to speak their truth.'”

This meant exchanging personal experiences regarding the beauty and ugliness of male vulnerability, before that was distilled into smooth and sensual RnB.

This month marks two decades since its release, and Confessions remains a momentous achievement. It’s a blockbuster album about the shame stemming from broken relationships.

Over 17 tracks, Usher sheds that carefully curated public image of a carefree lover boy to reveal someone more complicated and, at times, even callous.

The surrounding marketing campaign promising shocking revelations within the songs was also employed in later years for a range of Taylor Swift’s albums and Beyonce’s Lemonade.

These marketing drives only work, however, if the songs rise above the chatter. On that score, Confessions delivers with songs traversing a range of RnB styles, from neo-soul and slow jams to hip-hop and pop-inflected tracks.

The most aggressive of which is the opener Yeah!, the album’s only club-ready track that comes armed with a mean whaling synth riff by producer Lil Jon and Usher’s most formidable vocal turn.

Such is the song's incongruous energy with the rest of the album that its only purpose is to seemingly grab our attention.

What follows is Usher gradually opening up to his faults. In Throwback, he uses memory as a whip to flog himself. "You never miss a good thing 'til it leaves you and finally,” he sings. “I realise that I need you."

Confessions Part 1 and Confessions Part 2, forming the heart of the album, build in intensity from a minimal piano arrangement to stuttering beats as Usher fulfils the murky promises of the album's marketing campaign.

Yes, the man did cheat on his partner, as he starkly illustrated in part one: "Every time I was in LA, I was with my ex-girlfriend. Every time you called, I told you: 'Baby I am working.'"

The second instalment shows him admonishing himself, with late nights at home alone "sitting here, stuck on stupid, trying to figure out when, what, and how I'm let this come out of my mouth".

Burn is a stirring and modern twist on classic RnB.

Over mellow strings, Usher's vocal prowess is at the forefront with lyrics both conversational and confronting: "Really wanna work this out, but I don't think you're gonna change. I do, but you don't think it's best we go our separate ways. Tell me why I should stay in this relationship when I'm hurtin', baby.”

The appeal of Confessions is how Usher manages to deftly exude vulnerability and infuriating hard-headedness most of the time.

Just when you thought lush and optimistic songs like Superstar and Simple Things hint at hope and healing that comes with coming to terms with his faults, he is back to his old ways.

The sultry Bad Girl takes us back to where we started. Fuelled by nimble groove, Usher is back in the club and wrestling with temptation.

Album closer Follow Me eventually finds him at home and secure in his new relationship: “Nobody understands but you. I can always be myself with you, girl. That’s why I’m singing.”

While Usher would go on to release five more albums with varied success, he has never sounded so direct and honest since this release.

Updated: March 22, 2024, 6:34 PM