The Number Ones

February 28, 2004

The Number Ones: Usher’s “Yeah!” (Feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris)

Stayed at #1:

12 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.

For a few years there, you weren’t really partying unless a man with dreadlocks and sunglasses and platinum-plated fangs was screaming at you. In the first few years of the new millennium, Lil Jon put the dancefloor in an unbreakable chokehold. Lil Jon had turned himself into the human face of crunk, a genre of burly gang-chant fight music that first developed in underground Memphis clubs in the ’90s. Crunk was one of the rawest, most visceral subgenres of rap music, and it seemed light years removed from the rap mainstream, let alone the actual pop charts. But Lil Jon figured out how to turn crunk into pop music, and he helped bring about a cultural sea change, moving the center of rap and R&B to his Atlanta hometown and putting his own adrenaline-charged bellow at the center of everything. Years later, I still can’t believe he pulled it off.

Lil Jon had already made hits before “Yeah!” became 2004’s biggest song, and his party-up roar was already omnipresent in clubs and on rap radio. But “Yeah!” was something else. By teaming up with a club-friendly R&B singer who’d been a pop star for years, Lil Jon supercharged his sound, and he helped introduce the album that became one of the last true mainstream pop blockbusters — a Thriller for the post-Napster era.

“Yeah!” was the right song at the right time, the track that connected emergent underground trends with gleaming pop hooks and effectively recalibrated the sound of uptempo pop music. Sometimes, you have to look back to figure out which pop songs changed the game and helped shape history. But when “Yeah!” was on top, the change was immediate and undeniable. It was happening right in front of our faces. Suddenly, you could become a pop star just by screaming over one-finger keyboard riffs. It was a glorious time.

Usher thought that he’d finished recording Confessions, the album that would go down as his masterpiece. Two and a half years after 8701, Usher got together with his longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri to make an R&B album about relationships and infidelities and temptations. Usher and TLC’s Chilli had broken up after a couple of years of dating, and the world knew that it was because Usher cheated. So Usher, playing up on his tabloid relationship, had recorded all these tender and emotive songs about what it’s like to fuck up a good thing because you can’t help yourself. Usher submitted 40 finished songs to Arista, his label, and LA Reid, the label’s new boss, told him that the album wasn’t done. It still needed a single. Usher was not happy.

Usher had wanted to release “Burn” as the first single from Confessions, but the people at his label were concerned. They knew “Burn” was a good song, and potentially a big song, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that would jump out of the speakers and kick somebody’s head off. They needed an anthem. At that point, when you needed an anthem, Lil Jon was the person that you called. (In the end, both Usher and his label people were proven right. Confessions would send a bunch of songs, including “Burn,” to #1. But “Yeah!,” the eventual first single, eclipsed everything else.)

Jonathan Smith grew up middle class in Atlanta. (When Lil Jon came into this world — the day the music was born — Don McLean’s “American Pie” was the #1 song in America.) Lil Jon’s parents had both been in the military, and his father had become an aerospace engineer. In high school, Lil Jon got good grades and played in the marching band. He also got really into skateboarding and into the punk, hardcore, and metal that served as a soundtrack for skate culture. Many years later, Lil Jon would release a track where he screamed over Slayer samples for six minutes. I was into that shit.

I loved Lil Jon before I learned that he’d once been a suburban punk, and it made perfect sense to me. Crunk, the genre that Lil Jon brought into the pop spotlight, is reckless mosh music, as simple and direct and visceral as oi or thrash or youth-crew hardcore. Lil Jon didn’t invent crunk, but he got in early. The music started out in Memphis in the mid-’90s, as underground groups like the early Three 6 Mafia took the booming 808s and fired-up chants of Miami bass and slowed them up, turning them into something aggressive and sometimes violent. I love that shit. When I hear it, I feel things.

Lil Jon worked in an Atlanta skate shop as a teenager, and he also taught himself to DJ. Jon’s parents let him throw basement house parties, which became big events, and that led to Jon getting work in local clubs. As a DJ, Jon got to know important people on the Atlanta rap scene. One of those people was Jermaine Dupri, who hired Jon as an A&R at his So So Def label. At So So Def, Lil Jon’s big job was to assemble his series of So So Def Bass All Stars compilations. On those records, Lil Jon recruited local producers and singers, presenting an Atlanta version of Miami bass. The first So So Def Bass All Stars compilation came out in 1996 and went gold. Lil Jon did some uncredited production work on that album’s hit, the Ghost Town DJ’s track “My Boo.” (“My Boo” initially peaked at #31. In 2016, after “My Boo” soundtracked the Running Man Challenge meme, it crashed back onto the Hot 100 and rose to #27.)

While he was working at So So Def, Lil Jon put together his own group and started putting out records. Lil Jon recruited his friends Big Sam and Lil Bo to form a group called the East Side Boyz. None of them really rapped. Instead, doing their version of Memphis get-buck music, the three of them laid down unruly call-and-response chants over hard, minimal beats. Starting with their 1997 debut single “Who You Wit,” Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz’ records became Atlanta club anthems, and “crunk,” a word that Lil Jon shouted on “Who You Wit,” became the new name of the genre.

After a couple of their singles made regional noise, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz released their debut LP Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album on the local indie Mirror Image. A few years later, an A&R person working for TVT, the bigger indie mostly known for releasing Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, caught a Lil Jon show and signed the group. The East Side Boyz released their TVT debut Put Yo Hood Up in 2001. Lead single “Bia Bia” featured a pan-regional team of rappers — Ludacris, Too Short, Chyna White — and made it to #94 on the Hot 100. I can still remember getting a copy of that single at my college radio station and losing my mind. It had everything that I wanted out of music. I am a simple person, and if someone’s screaming about beating people up, I am usually happy.

Over the next few years, something unexpected happened. As Atlanta rap became more and more central to the mainstream, Lil Jon became more and more central to Atlanta rap. His style was hard and brutalist, but it was also deeply catchy, and those chanted hooks could get stuck in your head all day. In the summer of 2003, Lil Jon produced and yelled all over “Damn!,” a single from local duo the YoungBloodz, and that song became a genuine crossover hit, peaking at #4. (It’s a 9.) More hits followed.

Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz released Kings Of Crunk, their second TVT album, late in 2002, and its big single took a while to bubble. That song was “Get Low,” a booming hard-stop strip-club anthem that the group recorded with Atlanta bounce duo the Ying Yang Twins. (Lil Jon singles always featured guests, since the actual group never really rapped.) “Get Low” became an out-of-nowhere crossover smash, getting huge pop-radio play even in relatively uncensored form. Radio-station programmers hadn’t yet realized that “skeet skeet skeet” meant jizz. Somehow, “Get Low” made it all the way to #2. (It’s a 10.) Lil Jon got back together with the Ying Yang Twins for their 2003 single “Salt Shaker,” and that one peaked at #9. (It’s a 9.)

Those Lil Jon records hit a nerve because they were so nasty and uncompromising. Their cranked-up exuberance was its own kind of hook. Lil Jon made drunk, horny earworms, and as someone who was frequently drunk and horny at the time, it sounded amazing. You could change the whole atmosphere of a party by throwing one of those records on. Those tracks weren’t pop music, but they went hard enough to work as pop music. Lil Jon had enough momentum to bring the mainstream to him. He also started to dabble in songs that weren’t just feral chants. As far back as the Put Yo Hood Up, Lil Jon was working with one of his proteges, a singer named Oobie, to see if crunk and R&B could combine into one thing. When Lil Jon got the call to work with Usher, he had his chance to test those ideas out on the biggest stage possible.

When LA Reid told Usher that Confessions still needed a single, Usher went to work with a bunch of hitmaking producers, including past collaborators like Diddy and the Neptunes. Most of the tracks from those sessions never came out. But when Usher and Lil Jon got together, they had something. “Yeah!,” the song that Usher recorded with Lil Jon, is an absolute outlier in the context of the Confessions album, a classic red herring. The song has a plotline, and it fits in with the rest of what Usher was doing on the album. On “Yeah!,” Usher is in a club with his friends when he starts dancing with a girl. After some time on the floor, he learns that this girl wants to take him home and also that she’s friends with his girlfriend. He knows that he should stay away, but he can’t help himself. That dilemma never really applies to most of us, but when you’re Usher, women apparently keep throwing themselves at you. I don’t blame them, honestly. That’s a good-looking man.

Did you know the narrative behind “Yeah!”? I must’ve known it on some level, since I’ve heard the song thousands of times. I’m not sure I ever gave it a moment’s thought, though. The song establishes that Usher is (1) in the club and (2) horny, and that’s really all you need. Usher sings “Yeah!” in a strained tenor. He sounds energized and freaked out in equal measure. He sounds like he can’t trust his own horniness. It’s a newer mutation of what Michael Jackson was doing on “Billie Jean” 20 years earlier — that dizzy paranoiac whoop. On “Yeah!,” that delivery pairs beautifully with an absolute stomper of a Lil Jon track.

On “Yeah!,” Lil Jon’s production fits Usher’s voice. The beat demands total physical dedication, and that’s what Usher gives it. “Yeah!” sounds like it’s playing in a club even when it’s not, so it gives place and context to Usher’s whole storyline. Lil Jon plays hypeman, bellowing all his catchphrases and almost sounding like he’s mocking Usher’s internal conflict. It’s like Lil Jon knows that Usher’s not going to resist anything, and he’s just urging the chaos on. Then, before Usher makes up his mind about anything, Ludacris comes bursting onto the track and gives it a whole new shot of adrenaline.

On “Yeah!,” Ludacris is in his zone. Luda’s zany party-guy style worked beautifully with the rise of crunk, and he knew how to rap to a Lil Jon beat. Luda was fresh off of his own #1 hit “Stand Up” and in the middle of an all-time run of incredible guest features. On “Yeah!,” Luda ignores Usher’s whole storyline completely, opting instead to talk his own exhilarating shit. Watch out! His outfit’s ridicu-lous! In the club, looking so conspicu-ous! He delivers everything in a fired-up bray, sometimes mashing down the gas for a dizzily fast word-cluster: “They gimme the rhythm and it’ll be off with they clothes!” When his berserker verse ends, Luda sticks around to announce all the different things — Lil Jon’s beat, Usher’s voice, his own flow — that will make your booty go clap. At this point, the song abandons Usher’s narrative entirely. Did we ever have any doubt that he was going to cheat? Once your booty goes clap, the suspense is over.

Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris all got writing credits on “Yeah!” So did a few other people from the Atlanta music business. Lil Jon’s keyboardist and regular collaborator James “LRoc” Elbert helped out. So did Alabama-born songwriter James “J.Que” Smith, former So So Def Bass All-Stars contributor Robert McDowell, and So So Def in-house songwriter Sean “The Pen” Garrett, who was just getting his start. (We’ll see work from LRoc and Sean Garrett in this column again. Garrett eventually became a recording artist in his own right, and while he doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits on his own, he did guest on Mario’s #14 hit “Break Up” in 2009.)

Even with all those people working on it, “Yeah!” almost didn’t come out. Usher was trying to show what he could do as an R&B singer, and the crunk&B of “Yeah!” wasn’t what he wanted to display to the world. There was also a problem with the beat. Lil Jon had sent the original “Yeah!” beat to Mystikal, the New Orleans rapper who’s already shown up in this column. Mystikal picked a couple of other Lil Jon beats, and Lil Jon didn’t know that Jive, Mystikal’s label, had given the original “Yeah!” beat to a different artist. In December of 2003, the North Carolina rapper Petey Pablo released his single “Freek-A-Leek.” When Lil Jon heard “Freek-A-Leek” on the radio, he knew he was in trouble. The song had the same beat that he’d just given to Usher.

Lil Jon called Petey Pablo, trying to get him to pull the release of “Freek-A-Leek,” but the vinyl singles had already been pressed up. “Freek-A-Leek” came out a month before “Yeah!,” and the two tracks raced up the Hot 100 at the same time. When “Yeah!” made it to #1, “Freek-A-Leek” was still climbing. Petey’s track eventually became his biggest hit, peaking at #7. (It’s a 7.) Lil Jon had to quickly record a whole new beat for “Yeah!” The final version of “Yeah!” has this stabbing two-note synth-riff that sounds like a siren. If anything, it makes the song sound even more intense and urgent. The original version of “Yeah!” has never come out, but mash-up DJs have basically reconstructed it. “Yeah!” sounds cool with the “Freek-A-Leek” beat, but I prefer the version that we got.

For the “Yeah!” video, Usher worked with the former collaborator who’d once called himself Little X and who was then known as Mr. X. (He’s Director X now.) The clip takes place in a club full of laser-lights, and its dramatic blue lighting gives a slight horror-movie twinge to all the partying. Usher dances extremely hard in the clip, and he looks cool as hell. That thing where he spins his chain around his neck? The best. If I could do that, it’s all I’d ever do. The “Yeah!” video became so omnipresent that its two love interests, Destiny Lightsy and Melyssa Ford, became minor celebrities. At the end, in the version that’s not on the record, Lil Jon calls out different dances like a dancehall deejay, and Usher does his thing. One of those dances would soon become a #1 hit of its own.

For the first half of 2004, “Yeah!” was the song. I heard it everywhere. I’ve got this vivid memory of one morning on the bus to work, when a slightly out-of-it old man was listening to “Yeah!” on his Discman and singing along loudly. People joined in with the guy. That’s how big the song was. “Yeah!” pulled together all sorts of different cultural strains, and it basically made Atlanta’s rise to rap-capitol status official. I can’t find it anywhere, but I remember writing that “Yeah!” was a song that would get played at retro ’00s dance nights 20 years later. I haven’t actually been to any retro ’00s dance nights, but if they have those and they’re not playing “Yeah!,” then they’re fucking up.

“Yeah!” sounded nothing like the rest of Usher’s Confessions album, but it still propelled the album deep into the mass consciousness. Before the single came out, Usher was still hoping to release “Burn” as the first single. But Lil Jon sent “Yeah!” out to mixtape and radio DJs, and that was that. The song instantly caught fire, and it never went away. The Confessions album came out when “Yeah!” was sitting at #1, and it sold more than a million copies in its first week. Also, during the time that “Yeah!” was holding down the top of the Hot 100, Chappelle’s Show aired Dave Chappelle’s first Lil Jon impression, and people were still doing their impressions of that impression years later.

Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris all loved working together, and they started telling people that they wanted to make a whole collaborative album. The album never happened, probably because all three were signed to different labels. Soon afterward, though, Lil Jon remixed Usher’s song “Red Light,” and Ludacris jumped on the track. When Lil Jon released his Crunk Juice album later that year, the first single was “Lovers & Friends,” another team-up with Usher and Ludacris. “Lovers And Friends” is a bad song, a baffling attempt at a crunk ballad, and it never got a video, since the different labels could never come to an agreement. But the song still made it to #3 on the fumes of “Yeah!” (It’s a 4.)

Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris sometimes get back together to perform or record. In 2020, they released a collaboration called “SexBeat,” which missed the Hot 100. Earlier this year, all three of them did a joint headlining set at a rap/R&B nostalgia-fest called Lovers & Friends. In the years after “Yeah!,” all three of them kept making hits. Ludacris and Lil Jon will both be back in this column before long, and we will see Usher again very soon. We’ll see a whole lot more of Usher before we’re done with 2004.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2005 movie Hitch where Will Smith, someone who’s been in this column a couple of times, attempts to teach Kevin James to dance to “Yeah!”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On his 2008 Plies collab “Nasty Girl,” Ludacris took the dumbest line of his “Yeah!” verse — “we want a lady in the streets but a freak in the bed” — and turned it into an entire song. Here’s the video:

(Plies’ highest-charting single, the 2008 Ne-Yo collab “Bust It Baby (Part 2),” peaked at #7. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Yeah!” getting a big needledrop during a flashback scene in the 2009 film The Hangover:

(Bradley Cooper will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Afrobeats star Davido’s video for his 2017 single “If,” which samples Lil Jon’s hypeman routine from “Yeah!”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Detroit phenom BabyTron rapping over the “Yeah!” beat, and a whole lot of other beats, on his 2022 track “Emperor Of The Universe”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: J-Kwon’s crunching, minimal sloppiness anthem “Tipsy” peaked at #2 behind “Yeah!” It’s a 9.

THE 10S: Jay-Z’s breathlessly imperious fanfare “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” peaked at #5 behind “Yeah!” It’s a 10. Ask about it.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Bend over to the front, touch your toes, and buy it here.

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