The road to this year’s Grammy Awards was no hop, skip and backflip for Usher: Mr. Entertainment took the scenic route. He stepped into the studio more than two years ago and proceeded to follow his main operative: To make an all-purpose album that’ll get you in the club, in the car and in the bedroom, and bring soul music back to the forefront.
One of his first steps was deciding to let it all hang out by singing about some of his own little secrets, as well as a few bones from his homies’ skeleton-filled closets.
“As a friend, just knowing the music side of it, I thought it was a good idea for people to know the dude,” said Usher’s friend and former A&R rep Kawan “KP” Prather. “The music has never been the question, but people tend to buy into the artist. The more they know about you, the more they feel like they’re there with you. I was like, ’Man, it’s dope [to be more personal], but good luck’ ” (see “Usher Lets Skeletons Out Of The Closet On Confessions“ ).
Ush didn’t look too far when it came to starting the project. He decided to continue building with Jermaine Dupri, who worked on his last two albums. The producer subsequently called on frequent collaborator Bryan-Michael Cox.
“Me and [Jermaine] will sit down and start throwing melodies back and forth,” said Cox, who also worked on Usher hits like “U Got It Bad.” “The first record we did for the album was ’Burn.’ It came about because me and Jermaine were sitting around talking about a situation like [the one in the song] and we both said, ’Yo, you gotta let that burn.’ We said, ’That’s a song right there,’ and started writing.
” ’Confessions, Pt. 2′ was the same thing: We were having a conversation and said, ’Somebody needs to write a song about that.’ We were a little concerned because we didn’t think Usher was going to do it. But he heard it and was like, ’I’m ready to cut that right now.’ ”
Usher also didn’t waste any time cutting “Follow Me” with producers Andre “Dre” Harris and Vidal Davis. “All the songs we did were tailor-made for Usher,” Dre said. “We listened to  and we said to ourselves, ’Usher really needs to sing hard and let people know his vocal ability.’ We really focused in
on showing his vocal ability.”
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While other Dre and Vidal records, like “Superstar” and “Follow Me,” put Usher in more of a crooner mode, his current single, “Caught Up,” was obviously crafted with the club in mind. Dre said after devising the “real up-tempo beat” that Usher had asked for, they decided to make sure the mood was inspiring during recording.
“You have to set the scenery,” Vidal said of the session.
“That song is a party record because we really partied the whole time we were working on it,” Dre added. “We had some women, some drinks, some music.”
The collective took a break from making the music to vibe at Club 112 in Atlanta. “We took a ride to the club and played it in [Usher’s] truck on the way,” Dre recalled. “Usher was like, ’Yo, this joint is banging.’ He saw other people were feeling it as well.”
During the recording of the album, Usher also huddled up with the likes of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Neptunes and Just Blaze, but shortly before his album’s scheduled release date in November 2003, he still didn’t have the right jump-off song — the record that would ignite his buzz to epic proportions. That’s where Lil Jon came in.
The album’s release date was moved to March 2004, and Usher went into the studio with Jon and churned out a few more tracks, most notably “Red Light” and “Yeah!” The head of Usher’s label at the time, L.A. Reid, was on the fence about whether “Yeah!” should be the first single, especially because they had the blockbuster ballad “Burn” on the cooker. Usher, too, was skeptical about whether “Yeah!” was the right first single.
“Everybody was scared to make that first step,” KP recalled. ” ’Burn’ being a great song is one thing, but it’s one of them things where people said, ’It’s strong, but can we make history with that?’ At the end of the day, you want an event.
“Then the Lil Jon record came, and there was a lot of hesitation to do it. You don’t want to say you’re following the trends like ’OK, crunk is hot!’ [Usher] wanted to do it, but he wasn’t sure if it would be selling out what he wanted to do for R&B. He was like, ’Is that taking a shortcut?’ I was like, ’Nah, if you put it out there on the forefront.’ He didn’t get on that record and try to be crunk — he was just himself on an incredible record.”
All the debating was laid to rest when Lil Jon leaked the record to DJs across the country. “The record got out over Christmas ,” KP said. “Record companies break for Christmas, but by the time we got back to business in January, the record was already at [thousands and thousands of radio plays] with nobody working it. That’s some unheard-of sh–. That’s the people saying they want it.”
That solved one problem. But Usher had another, pivotal head-scratcher on his hands: With more than 40 songs in the stash, what in the world makes the album’s final cut, and what doesn’t?
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“It was too much music,” KP said. “All the music was dope. You had to sacrifice some of it and save it for later. Narrowing down a bunch of jamming songs is hard. That’s when you sit down with your committee: L.A. Reid, Jermaine Dupri, [A&R rep] Mark Pitts and me. Everybody has their favorites, but [we decided by] which ones came up consistently more. You sit down and tally that sh– up.” (Three of the aforementioned omitted tracks — including “Red Light” and the Grammy-nominated “My Boo” — along with a remix of “Yeah!” were included on the “special edition” re-release of Confessions — see “Usher/ Alicia Keys Video To Accompany Confessions Re-Release” ).
The tally of consumers wanting to hear Confessions came in at more than a million people during the first week of the album’s release in March 2004 (see “The Road To Confessions: How Usher ’Shook A Million’ “ ). And so far, almost 10 million people in the U.S. alone have bought the album, which has garnered Usher eight Grammy nominations.
As this year’s Grammys approach, you can get all the latest news on the show, the scene and the nominees in our Grammy news archive. On the big night, February 8, be sure to tune in to MTV at 7 p.m. for our “All up in the Grammys” preshow. Plus check out videos of the nominees and more right here on mtv.com.
For a feature on Usher, check out “Usher: King Me.”