The Number Ones

December 15, 2001

The Number Ones: Usher’s “U Got It Bad”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Love is an affliction. That’s how Usher makes it sound, anyway. “U Got It Bad,” Usher Raymond IV’s third Hot 100 chart-topper, isn’t about Usher himself. Instead, it’s about “U,” the generic second-person subject. You’re in love. Usher can see it, and he feels bad for you. Usher’s been there, done it, humped around, and he knows that this particular feeling will fuck you up, spin you around, and leave you reconsidering your chosen trajectory. This feeling, as Usher imagines it, isn’t something that you want. It’s not a feeling to be sought out. Instead, it’s something that happens to you. You can’t control it or change it. There’s nothing you can do.

“U Got It Bad” was Usher’s second consecutive #1 hit. Usher released “U Got It Bad” right after “U Remind Me,” the first single from his 2001 album 8701. On that “U Remind Me,” sensitive player Usher does his best to carefully explain that he can’t see you anymore because you remind him too much of his ex, who cheated on him and hurt his soul. It’s Usher attempting to walk a line — to remain single but to let this poor lady down easy through the magic of soap-opera psychodrama. “U Got It Bad” exists in conversation with “U Remind Me” in ways that go far beyond the Prince-esque stylization of the titles. “U Got It Bad” is what happens when the sensitive-player thing stops working — when, despite your best efforts, you catch feelngs.

Usher recorded “U Got It Bad” with Jermaine Dupri, his favorite collaborator. Later on, Dupri said that “U Got It Bad” was essentially his attempt to remake Usher’s first chart-topper, the 1998 smash “Nice & Slow.” In 2013, Dupri told Complex, “‘U Got It Bad’ was basically just another version of ‘Nice & Slow,’ with me trying to repeat and just make a better version.” Musically, the two songs have a lot in common. Both tracks are digital-era versions of the slow jam. Both go heavy on drum machines and ultra-processed acoustic guitars, and both rely on Usher’s ability to skate over a track — sounding almost, but not quite, like he’s rapping. Lyrically, though, the two songs work on different levels. “Nice & Slow” is about being horny. “U Got It Bad” isn’t un-horny, but it’s more about being helpless before your own sense of longing.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jermaine Dupri says he got the idea for “U Got It Bad” because he saw that Usher had it bad. Usher and Dupri were trying to work together in the studio, but Usher “couldn’t get his performance together.” Usher had brought a girl to the studio, and her presence was distracting Usher. Dupri says that the girl “got him really upset, and then she left. Then she called him while he was in the studio. They got into some conversation, and he couldn’t finish his work.” Dupri told Usher that he had to leave the studio for the day. Usher asked why, and Dupri responded, “We’re going to do this later on. You got it completely too bad right now. You got it bad.” Dupri doesn’t identify the girl, but Usher started dating TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas in 2001, so it might be her. You can never really tell with Usher.

In any case, that whole exchange gave Dupri his lightbulb moment, and he started writing “U Got It Bad” as soon as Usher left the studio. Dupri worked on the song with his co-producer and regular collaborator Bryan-Michael Cox, a Houston native who’d gone to high school with Beyoncê and who’d recorded an early demo tape with her. While studying at Clark Atlanta University, Cox had worked as an intern at the label Noontime Records. Cox’s Noontime boss Chris Hicks became his manager, and the two of them both worked on “Get Gone,” a song that the Houston R&B group Ideal took to #13 in 1999.

In 2000, Bryan-Michael Cox and Jermaine Dupri started working together regularly. They helped write and produce songs for Dupri collaborators like Lil Bow Wow and Jagged Edge. In the Bronson book, Cox says that Dupri has basic concepts for songs and that those songs would develop as the two of them passed ideas back and forth. Cox takes credit for the “U Got It Bad” melody: “‘U Got It Bad’ is special to me because Jermaine allowed me to express myself melodically. That’s one track I initiated musically, and Jermaine brought the lyrics and the whole production concept, where it started with just a little piano idea I laid down. He built it from there, and it became this massive song.” Usher got a writing credit on “U Got It Bad,” as well, but it seems like most of the song was Dupri and Cox.

“U Got It Bad” is very much a product of its time. The rhythmic bed is simple. It’s got the same 808-driven rhythmic pattern as a whole lot of that era’s Southern rap, mostly limited to mechanized kickdrum booms and hi-hit tics. Over that drum machine, William Odum, a session guitarist who played on a lot of Dupri productions, plays a busy acoustic figure so clean that it sounds positively unreal. There are a few subtle, melodic synth bits in there, too, and some whooshing-wind sound-effects, but that’s really it. The whole arrangement is uncluttered by design; it exists mostly to stay out of Usher’s way.

On “U Got It Bad,” Usher sounds pained and puzzled, and the thing that’s messing him up is the idea of overwhelming attraction: “Know you got it bad when you’re stuck in the house/ You don’t wanna have fun, it’s all you think about/ You got it bad when you’re out with someone, but you keep on thinking ’bout somebody else.” So it’s a song about not wanting to admit that you feel things. Maybe you’ve built up this image of yourself. Maybe you think of yourself as someone who likes to be out, having fun with as many people as possible. Maybe “U Got It Bad” is what happens when all that melts away and you realize the thing that you really want — or, even worse, the thing that you don’t want. On the pre-chorus, Usher sings, “Nobody wants to be alone.” It seems like he had to work to arrive at that conclusion.

As “U Got It Bad” continues, Usher’s narrator starts to figure out that maybe having it bad isn’t so bad: “When you say that you love ’em and you really know/ Everything that used to matter don’t matter no more.” He starts imagining himself giving away money and cars. He quotes from “Fortunate,” the song that neo-soul loverman Maxwell recorded for the 1999 Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence movie Life. (“Fortunate,” Maxwell’s highest-charting single, peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) By the time “U Got It Bad” ends, Usher tries to get people singing along, pledging their devotion to one another: “Tell her, ‘I’m your man, you’re my girl, I’m gonna tell it to the whole wide world.'”

In most singers’ hands, I don’t think “U Got It Bad” would be much of a song. The production is slick in a generic early-’00s sort of way. It works, but it doesn’t stand out. Instead of a bridge, there’s a screaming, treble-drunk blooz-rock guitar solo. It’s interesting to hear a solo like that on an R&B track, and I’m sure Usher and Dupri thought of that solo as a Prince homage, but Prince would’ve made sure that the solo actually rocked, and this one doesn’t. A great vocal performance, however, can elevate a just-OK song, and “U Got It Bad” has one.

Usher is one of those singers who understands rap music even though he doesn’t really rap himself. You can hear it in the way he clusters up his syllables on “U Got It Bad,” doing his own version of halting-skittering Southern bounce-rap cadences. Those cadences have melody built into them. Usher sings a lot of notes on “U Got It Bad,” but even when he’s on melismatic runs, he never sounds like he’s showing off. Instead, when he shifts up into his falsetto, there’s an emotional reason for it. He sounds like he’s breaking. All through the song, Usher sounds sad and vulnerable. He’s not celebrating love; he’s lamenting all the ways that it can break him down. But he still finds some room for playfulness and swagger in his delivery. Throughout “U Got It Bad,” Usher just floats.

“U Got It Bad” is more of a love song than a breakup one, but the video gives some sense of why Usher sounds so sad. TLC’s Chilli had been one of the many love interests in Usher’s “U Remind Me” video. In “U Got It Bad,” she’s the only love interest, and Usher spends the whole video pining for her. He’s got it bad because he fucked everything up and because he misses her. The clip comes from the Canadian director who used to call himself Little X and who now goes by Director X. (I guess he got big.) X eventually made a couple of movies, like the 2018 Superfly remake, but I think of him as one of the all-time great rap-video directors. He always makes his stars look as good as they’ve ever looked. With Usher, he doesn’t even have to work that hard.

In the “U Got It Bad” video, Usher expresses that heartbreak the only way he knows: He dances. He does complicated old-school mic-stand maneuvers. He moonwalks sideways. He pulls off a ticcy malfunctioning-robot thing. He twirls into a knee-slide. He plays air guitar in the pouring rain. In between, there’s some stuff about Usher seeing Chilli’s face everywhere — on magazine covers, on fake Entertainment Tonight-type TV shows — and then going home by himself because he can’t bring himself to knock on Chilli’s trailer door. But if the whole video was just Usher dancing, I don’t think anyone would complain. The guy is just fun to watch. If I’m being honest, Usher’s performance in the “U Got It Bad” video did almost as much to elevate the song as Usher’s actual vocals.

The initial plan was for Usher to follow “U Remind Me” with the Neptunes-produced Diddy collab “I Don’t Know,” but that song ultimately never came out as a single. Instead, someone figured out that “U Got It Bad” was pretty much the full Usher experience in one song — that he really didn’t need a rapper on a track with him. “U Got It Bad” came out as a single in August 2001, and it lingered around the top of the charts for a while. After its first week at #1, another song knocked “U Got It Bad” out of the top spot. But then “U Got It Bad” returned to #1 a month later, and it stayed on top for another five weeks. It had legs.

Early in 2002, the same week that “U Got It Bad” returned to #1, Usher released another single. The Neptunes-produced “U Don’t Have To Call” was the third single from 8701, and it was the third hit. The song is faster and flirtier than those first two singles, and it was nearly as big. (“U Don’t Have To Call” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) 8701 ultimately went quadruple platinum, which is just over half as much as 1997’s My Way, Usher’s previous album, had sold. But 8701 still helped Usher hone and evolve his whole persona. As the 8701 cycle was dying down, Usher showed up on P. Diddy’s single “I Need A Girl (Part One),” and that song peaked at #2. (It’s a 5. We’ll see Diddy in this column again.)

The whole 8701 experience set Usher up for a whole lot more success, and his next album would be one of the biggest blockbusters of the new century. We’ll see plenty more of Usher in this column.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: The most recent episode of the great TV series Atlanta concerned the Young White Avatar, and it gave a name to a phenomenon that’s been happening in rap and R&B for years. Usher was early to the Young White Avatar trend, and his palefaced protege Justin Bieber was especially fond of “U Got It Bad.” Here’s a video of the baby Bieber auditioning for Usher by singing Usher’s own song for him in 2007:

And here’s Bieber singing an acoustic medley of “U Got It Bad” and Ne-Yo’s “Because Of You” in 2011:

(“Because Of You” peaked at #2 in 2007. It’s a 7. Ne-Yo will eventually appear in this column, and so will Justin Bieber.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s eventual winner Phillip Phillips singing a weird folky-jazzy version of “U Got It Bad” on a 2012 episode of American Idol:

(Phillip Phillips’ highest-charting single, 2012’s “Home,” peaked at #6. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “U Got It Bad” cover that the Swedish singer Lykke Li released as a Spotify Single in 2018:

And here’s a video of Lykke Li singing that “U Got It Bad” cover at a 2018 show in San Francisco:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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