When Usher released his latest album, “Confessions” more than two months ago, R&B music was considered, well, dead. Or at least incognito. The music had actually been ruling the charts for several years under a different name — “boy bands” and “teen pop”. Meanwhile, the two most name-recognizable ‘R&B’ artists (R. Kelly and Michael Jackson) were getting more attention for their police blotters than their music.
That was before “Confessions” opened at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, kicking off a level of success that Vibe magazine music editor Erik Parker calls “unprecedented for an R&B artist”. “Confessions” sold 1.1 million units the first week — the biggest first week total for an R&B in the history of Soundscan. Usher’s album has currently spent 11 weeks on the Billboard charts, spending nine of them at No. 1. He has three songs in the top 10, a feat matched only by the Beatles and the Bee Gees. And with four million copies currently sold, one of the season’s most ubiquitous dance hits (“Yeah!”), this album may eventually rival some of the biggest selling albums of the past decade, said Gail Mitchell, R&B editor for Billboard magazine.
“There hasn’t been a week where he hasn’t sold less than 190,000 copies,” said Mitchell. “That is something that hasn’t been done since Santana’s big success with “Supernatural” (which went on to sell more than 14 million copies following its 1999 release).
On one hand, an album that includes contributions by some of the hottest artists and producers in pop (crunk-meister Lil Jon and Ludacris fuel “Yeah”) is practically earmarked for runaway sales. But this kind of success is heady even for someone like Usher, already a multi-platinum selling star.
Making the transition from child to adult artist
A recording artist since the age of 14, he managed the tricky transition from child star to mature artist, driven home by back-to-back multiplatinum albums, “My Way” (1996) and “8701” (2001). Still Usher hadn’t completely distinguished himself from what was a growing pack of post R. Kelly hip-hop soul men — Ginuwine, Sisqo.
It wasn’t because of a musical deficiency, not with hip-pop maven Jermaine Dupri (Bow Wow, J-Kwon) in his corner. And Usher’s skills as a dancing singer make him Michael Jackson’s heir apparent.
The problem, said Vibe’s Parker, was image. There was no range, no depth, nothing that could make him interesting to the listening public en masse.
“Up until now, Usher has been kind of plain and one-dimensional,” Parker, said. “The only thing that he had to catch people’s attention was the fact that he was dating Chili (of TLC).”
That relationship ended earlier this year; as, Chili revealed that Usher had betrayed her by committing the “ultimate no-no”. Even though Usher admitted his infidelity, he “left a lot of stuff just dangling out there, in terms of details”, Parker said. That air of mystery fueled the gossip mill (there were rumors he was expecting a child from an unnamed fashion model paramour), and sent fans combing “Confessions” for any clue about the split.
“Usher has gone through something that people can relate to,” said Parker. “He’s human. And everybody can relate to somebody breaking up with their girl, especially guys — just on anecdotal evidence, he has a lot more male fans than he did before. This generation has always prized being “real” and Usher has shown himself to be real.”
Reflections of another R&B star
Usher’s relationship woes mirrored those of another pop/soul singer, Justin Timberlake. His rift with Britney Spears kept him in the public eye for months, and helped boost the sales of his debut album, “Justified”. Many have noted the similarities between Usher and Timberlake, both in their Jackson-influenced stage presentation, their superproducer-powered albums (Usher has Dupri, Just Blaze and Lil Jon, Timberlake works with the Neptunes) and their devotion to the modern R&B aesthetic.
“Even though Usher doesn’t really pay a lot of attention to it, that comparison gets made a lot,” Parker said. “The thing is, it introduces Usher to Timberlake’s audience, and with Usher’s more polished voice and dance moves, that comparison actually works in his favor.”
“Confessions”’ success also is instructive on a larger scale, said Billboard’s Mitchell.
“I’m sure what Usher has done isn’t lost on the industry,” she said. “It shows that an album can sell mega numbers even with all the downloading. The whole reason people were downloading music was because you were getting albums with maybe one or two tracks and a lot of filler. If you have an album that strong from beginning to end, people will buy it. Norah Jones showed that. Alicia Keys showed that. There are few R&B artists who I can say are building a catalog or songs — who is building a body of work and a career that will warrant a ‘best of’ collection five or 10 years down the road. Usher is one of them. The only question now is what he’ll do next.”
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