The Unforgettable Journey of Usher's ‘Confessions’: A Masterpiece in R&B History 20 Years Later

Grammy-Award winner Bryan Michael Cox reflects on the creative process behind Usher's iconic album, highlighting the evolution of contemporary R&B.

By 2004, Usher Raymond IV was well-established as a major star of contemporary R&B. Her previous two albums, “8701” in 2001 and “My Way” in 1998, were both multi-platinum sellers, featuring numerous singles that went number one on the Billboard Hot 100. He was so successful as a fixture in pop culture that he appeared in several films, such as “The Faculty” and “Light It Up.”

Everything would change with his fourth album, “Confessions,” and Usher catapulted from a star into a global icon.

After a whirlwind romance with Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas from TLC ended in 2004, many speculated that “Confessions” was an autobiography of Usher’s life a la Marvin Gaye’s “Here My Dear" album. While the album is semi-autobiographical, the source material for the LP was not Usher’s life experiences alone.

“There is a great deal of truth in that album,” Usher said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, noting that he held several friends in the industry and had “talk sessions” with friends in the industry who shared their experiences.

“We would sit around, and I would say, ‘Yo, check your egos at the door, and let’s just really be honest,'” he recalled. “‘Everybody has to speak their truth.'”

Those sessions resulted in an impeccable body of work that, with its official release on March 23, 2004, forever shifted the landscape of R&B and pop music.

Grammy-Award-winning songwriter/producer Byran Michael Cox said that the album's creative process was a continuation of their past efforts that yielded major success.

“Working on ‘Confessions’ was just an extension “8701. We felt like we were going to work on the next album with that possibility of success,” Cox told “We were doing what we normally would do. We had no idea of the massiveness we were embarking on. We had no idea what was coming. We just started writing songs.”

Along with Cox, Usher collaborated with Jermaine Dupri, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis, Just Blaze, Usher's brother James Lackey, Dre, and Vidal, who provided the sonic backdrop as producers on the album. The organic chemistry is evident as each track fits seamlessly with the other. But the project got off to a rocky start.

After completing more than 40 tracks for the album that he finished, Usher turned the project into L.A. Reid, the then president of Arista Records. He was stunned when Reid told him something was missing from the project. Dismayed, Usher returned to the drawing board to record additional songs and eventually linked up with fellow Atlanta natives Lil Jon and Ludacris. The result of that collaboration would be the first single “Yeah.”

Written alongside Sean Garrett, Patrick "J. Que" Smith, Robert McDowell, and LRoc, “Yeah” was a departure from Usher’s signature sound by incorporating the “crunk sound” with his smooth, sensual vocals. The song would land at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for twelve weeks. "Yeah!" amazingly stayed on the Hot 100 charts for forty-five weeks. At the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, “Yeah” won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and was nominated for Record of the Year.

“Burn” was the second single from the album (originally supposed to be the lead single), and was instantly another smash that dealt with the ramifications of broken relationships, the scarlet thread of the album. Written by Usher, Dupri, and Cox, the US Billboard Hot 100 for eight non-consecutive weeks and succeeded "Yeah!" at number one.

“Confessions Part II" was another collaboration with Usher, Dupri, and Cox, and details a man coming clean to his wife that he impregnated a woman he’s having an affair with. It became Usher’s third consecutive number one on the Billboard Hot 100, staying at the top spot for two weeks. Although many believed Usher was singing about his relationship with Chill, it was an interpretation of Dupri’s experience.

"We were together when he recorded that album," Chilli said in an interview with Us Weekly. "All of those songs on 'Confessions,' that was about Jermaine Dupri's situation. Usher was just singing it. But people kind of bought into it, it was just the timing of our breakup when the album came out."

Cox added, “We were just doing what felt good. ‘Confessions’ is interesting because there are two versions. The record company didn’t really like the first version. We were off it because that was the only version we had of the song. But me and Jermaine loved the concept of the song so much and he came up with the idea to do ‘Part II.’ At the time, R. Kelly had out ‘Ignition’ and it was popping but nobody but a few of us heard ‘Part I’ because ‘Part II’ was the hit. We did the same thing with “Confession II.”

Other singles, "My Boo," a duet with Alicia Keys, another number one, and “Caught Up” (Peaking at number 34), kept the album in heavy rotation long after its initial release.

Although it spans over 21 tracks, “Confessions” has no misses. Even deep cuts such as the Just Blaze-produced “Throwback” featuring Jadakiss, the seductive “Superstar,” and the fan favorite “Bad Girl” are staples of Usher’s live shows. 

Hailed by critics and a commercial juggernaut out of the gate, “Confessions” would be the second-best-selling album of the 2000s decade, with over eight million copies sold in 2004 and more than 20 million sold worldwide, his best-selling album. The album was also ranked 432 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Cox expressed his gratitude for being a part of such a transcendent project.

“I’m proud to be part of the legacy of ‘Confessions.’ I think it's one of the most important albums of the 21st century and definitely one of the most important R&B albums,” Cox said. It says a lot about where we were creatively, where we were mentally, and where we were in our lives at that moment.

Showcasing vulnerability, brutal honesty, impeccable songwriting, and cutting-edge production, “Confessions” has aged like fine wine. Without question, it is Usher’s masterpiece and one of the best albums of the last twenty years, regardless of genre.


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