He’s not pulling a Dave Chappelle and imitating his good friend Lil Jon: Usher is just making sure he’s actually hearing what he thinks he’s hearing.
“What? What? What?” he says with a smile. “A million the first week? Oh! That’s history! We shook a million! It’s on now!”
History is right: Confessions’ nearly 1.1 million units sold is the highest-ever chart debut for an R&B artist, the second-highest debut for a male artist, and the seventh-highest debut of the SoundScan era (see “Usher Makes Record-Breaking Debut Atop Albums Chart” ).
What might be most astounding is the fact that, after 10 years and four albums — when artists lucky enough to make it that far are usually on the last lap of their careers — Usher is more popular than he’s ever been. How did he do it? We came up with five hard-and-fast rules.
1. Know When Not to Say “No!”
When you’ve been out of the spotlight for a while (for more on that, see #5), you need the right vehicle to reintroduce yourself. What better way to pop your project off than teaming up with two fellow Atlantians — the king of crunk, Lil Jon, and mouth almighty Ludacris — who also happen to be two of the biggest names in music today? The song hit the mixtapes, the clubs and the airwaves in November and has been consuming everything in its path ever since.
“It’s going to be the song of the year,” Ludacris says.
But oddly enough, “Yeah!” didn’t exist when Usher initially submitted the album to his label, Arista, last year. After he and the company’s then-president, Antonio “LA” Reid, sat down and decided the album needed a first single, Usher went back to the lab and hooked up with Lil Jon for two tracks (one of which did not make the album and is resting comfortably in the vaults — along with records Usher recorded with P. Diddy and the Neptunes — for future use).
It doesn’t hurt that the song addresses a situation that people can identify with. “The song is about [when] I realize, ’You and my girl used to be the best of homies and I’m about to go home with you?’ ” Usher explains. “Damn, what’s up with that?”
2. Get X to Mark the Spot
A hot video can be a song’s best advertisement. Usher and Mr. X (formerly known as Little) combined thoughts to deliver a dance spectacular. One of X’s ideas was to have Usher dance in front of laser lights, reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” video.
“When we did it,” X says of Usher grooving in front of the laser lights that are prevalent throughout the clip, “We were all watching him perform like, ’This is the video. This is the new-millennium Off the Wall sh–.’ ”
No disrespect to X or his laser lights, but we all know the happenings on the dancefloor are what make “Yeah!” special, especially when Usher is virtually attacked by his first leading lady.
“Destiny’s an ill dancer,” X says of the lady who literally climbs on Usher’s back during the beginning of the video. “We shot her audition and I was like, ’I need to have her come in.’ Actually, she was a little iller in the audition. It was kinda crazy.”
She wasn’t too shy during the actual video, either — which was no problem for Mr. Entertainment. “You’ve gotta look back at all my videos,” Usher says. “I always allow a woman to do her thing. You can’t really win in a situation like that, trying to freak her out. Let her have it! She wants to get it, come get it. When you’re in the club, let her do her thing. That’s what the song is about. Shorty is getting down low, telling me to come get it. I’m like ’Yeah, I’m with it.’ ”
3. Never Underestimate the Power of Word-of-Mouth
Usher and Arista held several advance-listening sessions for Confessions over the last few months, and the enthusiastic reaction trickled down to the street: The people wondered if the album was actually as strong as they’d heard.
“It’s a great album,” says Usher, who lists six songs when asked which ones he’s considering as follow-up singles to the album’s first two, “Yeah!” and “Burn.” “This is R&B in the traditional sense.”
4. Let It Burn
When it came to controversy, Usher fed the fire. The early buzz on Confessions said that the squeaky-clean singer would be making some scandalous revelations, namely that he struggled with infidelity during his two-year relationship with TLC’s Chilli. Rather than run away from the controversy, Usher embraced it. He wasn’t afraid to talk about his shortcomings (he does refute that cheating was the reason for the split) and in the process, humanized himself more than ever.
Eventually, though, another juicy tidbit about the LP started to spill out. Not only would he be talking about his cheating heart, he made a song about his fertile loins.
People ate it up. In the weeks before the album’s release, “Confessions Pt. 2,” which centers around Usher fathering a love child with another woman, became one of the project’s most-talked-about songs before the public had even heard a note.
With everyone intrigued, he danced around the subject in interviews as deftly as he dances onstage, saying he was singing about a “character.” Then, months later, he said, “I wasn’t in a relationship and got another girl pregnant — right now. But it is something I can relate to and it’s something that has happened to me in the past.”
Finally he’s come clean: “I never experienced [fathering a child outside of a relationship] firsthand, but it’s something I wanted to talk about,” he says. “I take this time to speak to you guys and let you know what it is so there isn’t any misconception. Yeah, you’ve heard a lot of far-fetched things, ’Did you get a girl pregnant?’ Nah, the creativity of music has turned into art imitating life right now.”
5. Pace Urself
If you thought the line between love and hate was thin, try to navigate the tightrope between building anticipation and becoming overexposed. Usher walked it with the grace of an acrobat.
You know that when he drops an album, it’s going to be at least two years before he comes back around, so you’d better enjoy him while he’s here. He doesn’t do a bunch of guest appearances, he’s not at every major event, he’s not on TV all year — he makes people miss him.
But when he’s here, Mr. Entertainment makes the most of his time. In just the last few weeks, he’s been on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “On-Air With Ryan Seacrest,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Last Call With Carson Daly,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Live With Regis & Kelly.” Of course, “Yeah!” has been played incessantly on MTV and BET.
“How do I feel about it?” he smiles when asked about Confessions’ success. “This is a highlight, this is history. I’m psyched. I’ve never really known how to take success, because I’m always so amped about getting to the next level, but I guess I’ve reached it. This is definitely the beginning. Hopefully it will sell 20, 30 million records, but I know we’ve already made history. See what happens when you put your faith in R&B?”
For a feature on Usher, check out “Usher: Souled Out.”