Ten years later, the truth finally comes out.
When our favorite albums hit milestone anniversaries, the hyperbole comes out when describing the art, as well as the impact the project had on its genre. The words “classic,” “watershed,” and “most influential” are tossed around without care or clear aim. That’s not the case here. To say Usher’s Confessions was the most important album of the aughts is neither hyperbole nor unfounded fanboy-ism. It’s just the truth. Numbers don’t lie: The album sold over 20 million records worldwide. It was the second best-selling album of the 2000s. It held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for nine consecutive weeks.
The success of the album can be attributed to a great number of factors: The first single, the Lil Jon–produced “Yeah!” was the No. 1 song in the country for twelve consecutive weeks and sold over 4 million copies in the United States. The second single from the album, “Burn,” a somber guitar-backed meditation on ending a bad relationship, replaced “Yeah!” at the top of the charts and remained there for another eight consecutive weeks. It’s also worth mentioning that Confessions was the hotly anticipated follow-up to 8701, the album that birthed the No. 1 hit “U Got It Bad” and moved more than 8 million units worldwide.
Hits aside, the true hallmark of the album was its titular theme, as reflected in the title track. Like most R&B records, Confessions is about love and love lost. It boils down to a man taking ownership of the wrongs he’s committed in a relationship; one who’s done so much dirt he can’t pull himself out of his grave. When taken by itself, it’s an unremarkable story arc. But at the time, with Usher in a very public relationship with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas of TLC fame, the album became pop culture catnip. Questions arose: Was Usher planning on breaking up with Chilli? Did Usher really get his sidepiece pregnant?
Songs like “Burn” and “Confessions Part II,” both written and produced by Jermaine Durpri and Bryan-Michael Cox, fanned the flames. Both were the cornerstones of the Diamond-selling album. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Confessions Complex spoke to Jermaine Dupri about how the titular song came to be, the genesis of the album’s theme, and why, if he had his way, “Yeah!” wouldn’t have happened.
As told to Damien Scott (@ThisIsDScott)
On the origin of "Confessions"
Jermaine Dupri: "'Part I' was basically the beginning of how we even got to Confessions. The name of the song was 'All Bad,' with 'Confessions' in parentheses. When we first started making this album, Usher was considered a clean artist. He had hit records but he wasn’t really in the media. The media only cares about those that are doing dirt, doing crazy shit. Those are the guys that garner these [magazine] covers.
"When we were talking about Usher’s new album, the PR people at Arista were saying they’re not getting a lot of bites for Usher to shoot covers. I couldn’t believe this, because we just came off “U Got It Bad,” and a bunch of big records and we felt like it was his time to turn into that superstar. But we was getting a lot of resistance and even L.A. [Reid] was saying to him, “Usher, all people talk about with you are your songs now. People talk about your songs but they don’t really know Usher the artist.’”
"So, that conversation was the beginning of my head wrapping around, ‘How do I create a whirlwind around Usher and make Usher something to talk about? Make people want to go deeper into the person. That was my quest. And from that point on I started watching Usher’s life closely.
"My whole thing was to create a ruckus. He had a girlfriend, Chilli. [I wanted to] create what girls think happens when we go to the studio. Women think it’s a party in there. They don’t think we working. I wanted everybody to start wondering: Who’s he talking about? What’s going on? Where’s this coming from? That was the goal. All that basically sums up 'Confessions.'
'Part II' was all me, my whole life story, basically. I just had gone through 'Part II' in real life.
"Once we got done with that song, we thought, ‘How cool was it that he confesses bad things, as opposed to lying about it?’ That’s the opposite of what males do. We felt like we had tapped into something. He already had 'Caught Up,' he already had a couple other songs that went along with this. It felt like the man was confessing. So it was like [the name] 'Confessions' just stuck—this is what it is. 'Part I' was a story that you got caught up in, so it was like we gotta have a “Part II.”
"Once again, 'Part II' was supposed to be fantasy: Usher didn’t have kids; none of these things were going on. 'Part II' was all me, my whole life story, basically. I just had gone through 'Part II' in real life, so it was like as soon as he said he wanted 'Part II,' the chorus was already on the edge of my lips. [I told him] OK, well, this is very right now; I can tell you exactly what 'Part II' is. So it [took me] like 30 minutes to write 'Part II.' I didn’t know that L.A. wasn’t going to put 'Part I' on the album. I’m thinking we gotta make a remix, so I try to make the beat harder than the first version because the first version was like piano-ish and super R&B. I wanted to make 'Part II' a little bit harder, [that’s] what I do when I do my remixes.
"'Part II' became a monster, a track better than 'Part I' in the eyes of just picking songs. So then that song, 'Part II,' just took off. I think the mystique of you not knowing about 'Part I' was what L.A. liked, because the album is Confessions. I can’t speak for L.A., but I’m thinking that somewhere in his mind, when he gave people 'Part II' instead of 'Part I' it was kind of like the Star Wars mentality. 'Part I' to me is a song that actually sums up the entire album. It set the tone for the title and it connected the rest of the songs on the album to make us feel like we had a full product.
"I think [Usher] loved it because it was mysterious. And even though 'Part II' was my story, it still was mysterious for him because if you got a girlfriend and you tell her you got a girl on the side who’s got a baby, it creates this mystique. It was so mysterious that Chilli actually started believing it. She started believing that these songs were about her. I heard her do an interview one day and she was talking about it like we wrote about her. No, no way. [Laughs]
On the making of "Burn"
Jermaine Dupri: "I did 'Burn' before I even did 'Confessions.' 'Burn' was me trying to make an extension of what I already did with 'U Got It Bad.' I was like, ‘OK I got to make another record like “U Got It Bad” because the obsession with “U Got It Bad” was crazy.’
"I did 'Burn' with the mentality of trying to recreate what people felt in 'U Got It Bad.' So we did that first and “Burn,” with the guitars at the end, it was very much R&B but it was really pop. It was like, ‘What do I do to take his sound up?’ So it wasn’t really anything about making the beat harder. I was trying to not water down the entire project.
"I felt like 'Burn' was the most melodic and almost sappy-sounding record you could possibly have. It was jumping and it was dope, but it sounded like pure R&B music. It doesn’t have no essence or hardness to it. It’s almost like 'She’s Out Of My Life' to me, the Michael Jackson record. That’s what it feels like to me when I listen to the song, like somebody’s crying.
"I was trying to get away from that angle, and give him something a little more bounce-ish, but at the same time, like I said, Usher still was uninteresting to people on a bunch of different levels. I was trying to do as much as I could to make people interested in him, from a standpoint of rappers wanting to be around him—just anything. I wanted everybody to listen to this project and want to be a part of it. So I took it to a place where we’d make this a ballad that’s going to be harder than what we’ve done before.
On not wanting "Yeah!" to be on the album
Jermaine Dupri: "When they came out with 'Yeah!,' I was nervous because I was thinking, 'Here we are with this guy’s career, having great R&B songs, and now he’s about to do something that could potentially damage what we already created.' I was in love with Lil Jon because that stuff started in my office. I knew what it was, but I didn’t know if that went with what we was doing musically.
"When we first put Usher out, we was chasing Bobby Brown, like with My Way. And that’s what I’m saying all of this was one long story because we all came from the same place. [When] we did My Way we were out to try to do a better album than [Bobby Brown's] Don’t Be Cruel. In the midst of that, the hardest thing on that album was 'My Way.' It was crazy because, when we first started this, I put Lil’ Kim on My Way and Usher’s mom was concerned about the language. This journey came from a whole different place, for us to get him on a record with Lil Jon just felt like, 'Oh man, we might be doing something crazy.' The song was incredible but it didn’t have anything to do with Confessions.
"As the executive producer and producer, I’m locked into the theme of what we’re trying to make. But at the same time, I recognized it as a hit record. But I didn’t know that that record should be first. [That’s what] I tell people about Confessions all the time—that album was the best case of A&R, producer, and executives doing all their jobs. Because L.A. did a great job picking that song and they did a great job by saying, Yes, give this to Usher, put this against all this other music that we have, and we should have a monstrous album. I have to take my hat off to them for doing their executive job, but I was nervous as hell for 'Yeah!' [Laughs]. I was 100% nervous as hell. It could have changed the whole scope, because now people hear Usher make records, people have so much shit to say about it. Straight from the people who don’t like it, they’re like, Yo, what the fuck is he doing? When is he going to start making R&B music again?
"With that being said, I felt like this could’ve happened with 'Yeah!' I felt like they could have been like, What the fuck is wrong with y’all? By the way, at that time, crunk wasn’t cool yet. Being turnt-up and crunk, it was cool for Lil Jon, it was cool for the YoungBloodZ, it was cool for Dem Franchize Boyz, and those people that do it. But to be ratchet wasn’t the coolest thing in the world at that point yet.
"I was scared of the ratchetness. And I didn’t want people to feel like we were chasing that because Usher, once again, wasn’t an artist that had to follow the trends of what was going on. So I didn’t want that to come off like that’s what he was doing. I went along with it. I felt like if DJs love it then we’ll make money—and that’s what happened.
"We still have a left off piece of this story to finish. Me and him started this journey and we talked about trying to become big music and make an album bigger than Thriller. I believe we still have an opportunity to do that. He just has to want it inside himself."