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.
Usher Raymond was a star long before 2004, and he remained a star for years after. He’s still a star now. Usher might not reliably chart the way that he once did, but he can still become a viral sensation out of nowhere. That happened just a couple of months ago, when a moment of beautifully hammy showmanship from a Tiny Desk Concert reached meme status. But nothing in the man’s career, before or since, can measure up to what Usher did in 2004, the year that he truly owned the pop charts. For that one year, Usher was putting up numbers. I can imagine record-label bean-counters looking back on Usher’s 2004 and softly weeping, pining for the days that they can’t have back.
In 2004, the music business was in trouble. The industry was a few years past the peak of the CD-sales boom. The labels and their lawyers had managed to put Napster out of business, but tons of other file-sharing services were popping up to fill that hole. The iTunes Music Store hadn’t yet emerged as a money-maker, and label people were mad that they had to do business according to Steve Jobs’ terms, selling all of their songs for only a dollar apiece. Young people just weren’t buying music anymore. Things looked grim. But even amidst all that doom and gloom, Usher’s Confessions emerged as a bona fide blockbuster, a four-quadrant monster.
Earlier this week, writing about Usher’s insanely dominant club klaxon “Yeah!,” I called Confessions “a Thriller for the post-Napster era.” But the better comparison might be Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the messiest all-conquering smash of the ’70s. In the context of Confessions, “Yeah!” was a glorious anomaly, an anthemic hookfest that felt bigger than any one person. For most of Confessions, though, Usher and his collaborators were chasing something else. They wanted to make art that would build on the image of Usher that already existed out in the world, and they wanted to get people invested in Usher’s personal narrative. That narrative turned out to be compellingly messy, and the compelling mess worked as well to sell records in 2004 as it did in 1977.
Most of Confessions is lush, expertly crafted R&B about byzantine romantic travails. “Yeah!” got the world’s attention, but “Burn,” the second single from Confessions, gave a better idea of what Usher was trying to do. Usher had wanted to release “Burn” as the album’s first single, but “Yeah!” caught on too fast. Ultimately, though, “Burn” blew up almost as big as “Yeah!,” and it replaced “Yeah!” at the top of the charts. Those two back-to-back hits meant that Usher held the #1 spot for an uninterrupted 19-week run, the longest in history at that point. When Billboard unveiled its annual chart at the end of 2004, “Yeah!” and “Burn” were sitting at #1 and #2, and Usher was the first artist to hold the top two spots on that chart since the Beatles in 1964. In that moment, the world was buying what Usher was selling.
Here’s the main contextual tidbit that you need for “Burn”: Usher once proposed marriage to TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas in the middle of sex. Usher told the world about this moment of psycho behavior in a Rolling Stone cover story a couple of weeks before “Burn” hit #1: “She was like, ‘You coming on crazy.’ Thank God she didn’t take me serious. It was just that it felt so good, you know?” I tell this story not just because it’s extremely funny but also to illustrate the point that Usher, even at his vertiginous peak, was a very young man who was making insane freako dumdum decisions. And nothing makes for better drama than insane freako dumdum decisions.
Chilli, seven years older than Usher, was already a star when Usher first showed up in Atlanta, trying to land a record deal. The two of them got together when Usher was about 22 and Chilli was about 29, and they stayed together for a couple of years. They broke up early in 2004, when Usher was just about done working on Confessions. Usher had been cheating, and Chilli dumped him after he owned up to it. In a radio interview shortly after the breakup, Chilli told the world that Usher had committed “the ultimate no-no.” In that Rolling Stone story, Usher says, “She got on the radio and talked about it; I could not believe that she did that.”
Chilli might’ve done Usher a favor. In a Complex interview a decade after the album’s release, Usher’s main Confessions collaborator Jermaine Dupri said that he’d been trying to figure out how to get the public interested in Usher as a human being, rather than just a singer of hit songs: “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.” Just as Dupri was trying to introduce the idea that Usher was doing dirt, doing crazy shit, Chilli came out and confirmed it.
Jermaine Dupri was upset that magazines weren’t very interested in putting Usher on covers, even after all the success that he’d already had. Usher, Dupri, and their collaborators wrote about all sorts of tangled romantic situations on Confessions. Usher himself hadn’t personally been through all of those situations, but the songs still stoked the rumors. (For another Confessions chart-topper, Dupri wrote about his own romantic life, and Usher sang it like he was talking about himself. This column will get to that song soon enough.) “Burn,” however, really was a commentary on what was happening in Usher’s life, even though Usher himself wasn’t the primary songwriter.
Usher has a writing credit on “Burn,” but the song’s main writers were Jermaine Dupri and his regular collaborator Bryan-Michael Cox. Dupri and Cox had previously worked together on Usher’s #1 hit “U Got It Bad,” and Dupri was chasing that success again. In the Complex story, Dupri says, “‘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.’” “U Got It Bad” had already been Dupri’s attempt to recapture the success of Usher’s first chart-topper “Nice & Slow.” Jermaine Dupri is evidently not that worried about repeating himself.
Musically, “Burn” is right in Usher’s sweet spot. Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox produced the track together, and they knew how to combine older R&B sounds with the sonic template of Atlanta rap without making the fusion sound forced. “Burn” is a slow jam, and it owes a lot to Babyface. The gleaming acoustic guitars and ultra-fake synth-strings could’ve been pulled straight from any ’90s Babyface track, but the itchy 808 hi-hats and whirring robot sounds are pure Atlanta. (That hi-hat programming, in particular, has never gone away; it still appears on most of the tracks that reach #1 these days.) Usher glides over that track. Sometimes, he sounds like a vintage soul singer, easily slipping into his falsetto when his emotions spiral out of control. But Usher also clusters up his syllables like a rapper, riding the bounce of that beat so effortlessly that it seems second-nature.
Still, “Burn” is not an effortless song. Instead, it’s a song about going through a bad time and realizing that you’ve fucked up. As the track opens, Usher gives a breathy spoken monologue. His voice sounds seductive, even though he’s dumping someone: “I feel like this is coming to an end, and it’s better for me to let it go now than hold on and hurt you.” Usher says that the words are burning in his throat, but he’s got to come out and say it anyway. When Usher starts singing, he makes it clear that this woman wants to stay with him, and he’s the one making the call to end it: “Really wanna work this out, but I don’t think you’re gonna change/ I do, but you don’t, think it’s best we go our separate ways.” On the chorus, Usher’s voice is soft and sensitive, but his words are downright cold: “Gotta let it go ’cause the party ain’t jumpin’ like it used to.”
When he’s in the midst of breaking up with this girl, Usher sings that she’ll have to “let it burn.” But when Usher reaches the second verse, he realizes that he’s made a mistake and that he’s “sending pages I ain’t supposed to.” Usher’s with someone else, but he really misses the woman who he left: “The feelin’ ain’t the same/ Find myself callin’ her your name.” He doesn’t know what he’s going to do without his boo, and there’s nothing that he can do to bring her back. He’s the one who has to let it burn.
All through “Burn,” Usher sounds anguished — first because he hates to break someone else’s heart and then because his heart turns out to be the one that he’s broken. It’s hard to find too much sympathy for Usher’s character on “Burn.” He’s the one who fucked everything up, and he knows it. Still, “Burn” works because that kind of self-recrimination is a pretty universal thing and because Usher sings it so beautifully. On “Burn,” he’s fluid and slippery, but he still communicates pain and regret. His voice dances over the beat, finding the pocket but still bringing the emotional fireworks: “So many days! So many hours! I’m still burning till you re-tuuuuurn!” Like Michael Jackson before him, Usher communicates nearly as much with a hoo-hoo-hoo ad-lib as he does with actual words.
“Burn” didn’t seize the zeitgeist the way that “Yeah!” did. On “Burn,” Usher doesn’t really chase trends. Instead, he and his collaborators make slight tweaks to update classic soul tropes, and the song comes out sounding hard and soft and mean and vulnerable all at once. In his Complex interview, Jermaine Dupri tries to explain the song’s appeal: “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.” (“She’s Out Of My Life” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.)
The Jake Nava-directed “Burn” video mostly follows the narrative arc of plenty of other R&B videos of its era. Usher moons around his fancy-ass mansion, thinking about the woman who’s not there anymore. (Jessica Clark, a model who later had a run on True Blood, plays the woman.) The visual hook is the way things around Usher’s house — his pool, his bed, the giant picture of the girl on his wall — all burst into flame when he thinks of her. At the video’s climax, Usher dances in front of a gorgeous old car while the palm trees all around him ignite. Even in his saddest videos, Usher can’t stop dancing. It’s who he is.
When “Burn” took over for “Yeah!” atop the Hot 100, I got bored with the song pretty quickly. I wanted more tracks with the relentless energy of “Yeah!,” and I wished Confessions had more songs like that. These days, I have an easier time admitting that “Burn” is a work of real craftsmanship. The song isn’t visceral, and it doesn’t grab me in the same way, but it’s a beautifully rendered pop-music evocation of heartbreak. It’s also a whole lot more representative of what Usher was doing with Confessions. Apparently, nobody was mad at Confessions being a whole lot softer than “Yeah!” might’ve implied. By the time “Burn” finished its run at #1, Confessions was quintuple platinum, and the album cycle was still just getting started. We’ll see Usher in this column again soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Joy Orbison sampling Usher’s “Burn” vocal on his 2010 single “Ladywell”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The-Dream samples the whispering drum intro from “Burn” on his 2012 single “Roc.” Here’s the “Roc” video:
(The-Dream’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2007 Fabolous collab “Shawty Is Da Shit,” peaked at #17. As a guest, The-Dream got to #14 on the 2009 Fabolous track “Throw It In The Bag.” As a songwriter, The-Dream will appear in this column a bunch of times.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Vic Mensa’s 2013 mixtape track “Tweakin’,” which features Chance The Rapper and which is built on a chopped-up sample of the “Burn” instrumental:
(Chance The Rapper’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2016 Lil Wayne/2 Chainz collab “No Problem,” which peaked at #43. As a guest, Chance will eventually appear in this column.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. I’m still burning till you buy it here.