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 IV looks deep into the eye of the camera. He’s wearing a futuristic all-black getup, a trenchcoat over some kind of leather turtleneck with snaps all over the collar, and he looks incredible. He’s bouncing, moving to the staccato guitar riff. Behind him, the horn section bounces along. Usher’s shoulders shimmy, and his fingers snap, but his head remains still, almost motionless. He draws two fingers across his face a couple of times while whispering two words: “Watch this.” Usher then immediately melts into giggles, and so does everybody else in the room. You can’t maintain that kind of show-business mystique forever.
That’s the moment that everybody remembers from Usher’s Tiny Desk Concert, his masterful bit of NPR-office showmanship from this past June. The whole 25-minute set is worth watching. It’s Usher, with a band full of killer musicians, delivering a greatest-hits set so smoothly that he makes it seem informal, knocking out incredible vocal runs like it’s nothing. But those two seconds were what went mega-viral: The bouncing, the fingers, the “watch this.” Usher might’ve been laughing after that moment, but he was also putting on a performance, and he knew it. At a certain point, Usher’s smoothness tips over into the realm of beautiful parody, and that has always been his sweet spot. The “watch this” wasn’t an ad-lib; it was right there on the song that Usher was performing. And it was always funny.
The “watch this” whisper is funny because it sounds like showing off. It sounds like Usher is about to perform a magic trick or a double backflip. Instead, he’s about to admit to relationship sins so vast and consequential that they would barely even work as credible soap opera fodder. He’s about to tell you, the woman he loves, that he’s having a baby by a woman that he barely even knows. He hopes you can accept the fact that he’s man enough to tell you this. And hopefully, you’ll give him another chance. But who is he kidding? Who would give anybody another chance after some shit like that? Who would be able to look at this guy the same way again? The story behind “Confessions Part II” is heavy shit, and yet Usher delivers it while wailing in a buttery falsetto and hitting all kinds of fancy footwork in the video. It’s too much. I love it.
For all its apparent emotional shitbaggery, “Confessions Part II” is pure theater. These are not really Usher’s confessions. Usher never had to tell a girlfriend that he’s gotten some other girl pregnant. But that doesn’t mean that “Confessions Part II” is fiction. Instead, chief Usher collaborator Jermaine Dupri later confirmed that “Confessions Part II” was, in fact, his own story. So these were somebody’s confessions, even if they weren’t Usher’s.
In some ways, “Confessions Part II” fits into a grand tradition of R&B storytelling. It gives us the same kind of cheating narrative that Billy Paul told in “Me And Mrs. Jones” three decades earlier. But “Confessions Part II,” from its title on down, also plays on Usher’s bad-boy tabloid persona. Since he was a little kid, Usher cultivated an image, depicting himself as an incorrigible flirt. As an adult in a public relationship, Usher used that persona as fuel, and he involved the whole world in his storytelling. “Confessions Part II” was the third single from Usher’s Confessions album, and it was also the third #1 hit. After Usher’s heartbroken breakup ballad “Burn” replaced his club banger “Yeah!” at #1, “Confessions Part II” knocked “Burn” out of the top spot. Other than the one week when Fantasia’s American Idol coronation song “I Believe” topped the chart, Usher ruled the Hot 100 from February 2004 through August.
“Confessions Part II” was the second half of a diptych on the Confessions album. On “Confessions Part I,” Usher’s narrator admitted that he’d been cheating, that he had a chick on the side with a crib and a ride. On that first song, Usher explained that he’d been going to Los Angeles for work but also to spend time with an ex. It had been going on so long, and he had been doing his main girlfriend so wrong. He was hand-in-hand in the Beverly Center, not giving a damn who saw him. It sounds pretty bad! And then it gets so much worse.
On “Confessions Part II,” Usher has already done his grand unburdening, but then he gets some bad news. The woman he’s been creeping with? She says she’s three months pregnant, and she’s keeping it. Usher is so throwed, and he doesn’t know what to do. I guess he’s going to give you part two of his confessions. On the song, Usher goes back and forth between breathy spoken-word narration, that old Philly soul trick, and theatrically anguished vocal runs. The song is sticky and memorable, and it’s got that nattering morse-code guitar line that immediately jumps out, but it’s impossible to hear the song as pure music. The track’s entire focus is on the storytelling; you can’t separate its story from its music any more than you can with the Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free, another product of the first half of 2004. (“Confessions Part II” was a #5 hit in the UK, but maybe the Streets’ British chart-topper “Dry Your Eyes” was the UK equivalent to “Confessions Part II.”)
In a Complex interview a decade later, Jermaine Dupri explained that he’d been trying to “create a ruckus” with those “Confessions” songs. With those tracks, Dupri was drawing on his own experience; he claims he’d just “gone through ‘Part II’ in real life.” Both tracks came from the same trio of songwriters who also made “Burn”: Usher, Dupri, and Dupri’s regular collaborator Bryan-Michael Cox. “Confessions Part II” was originally supposed to be a remix to the first “Confessions,” and Dupri wasn’t even sure either song would make the cut for the album. Dupri says that he wrote the “Confessions Part II” lyrics in half an hour. Dupri and Cox didn’t know if Usher would want to record a song that gnarly, but Usher was enthusiastic. Here’s how Dupri explains the appeal of “Confessions Part II”:
I think [Usher] loved it because it was mysterious. And even though “Part II” was my story, it still was mysterious for him because if you got a girlfriend and you tell her you got a girl on the side who’s got a baby, it creates this mystique. It was so mysterious that Chilli actually started believing it. She started believing that these songs were about her. I heard her do an interview one day, and she was talking about it like we wrote about her. No, no way. [Laughs]
The general public also thought that Usher was singing about his own experiences on “Confessions Part II.” Usher tried to combat that impression from the beginning. Even before the album came out, Usher tried to explain “Confessions Part II” to MTV: “I can’t say it’s a real-life [situation for me], but I know guys who go through that and might feel that. This song is a dramatization where a guy confesses all the stuff he’s been doing. That’s what I think women need, a real cat that’s gonna get real with them. Put it out there, like, ‘That’s how I feel, you gonna ride with me, or you gonna leave me?'” Later, he kept insisting that the song wasn’t really about him: “You have heard a lot of farfetched things — ‘Yo, did you get a girl pregnant?’ Nah, that was the creativity of music.” It didn’t matter. People still believed that “Confessions Part II” was real. Maybe Usher told the story too well.
“Confessions Part II” must’ve seemed like a funny choice for a single, especially when “Confessions Part I” didn’t get that treatment. Jermaine Dupri has said that LA Reid chose “Confessions Part II” because he had “kind of like the Star Wars mentality,” which is funny. But “Confessions Part II” is a better song, and it drew bigger reactions. People had feelings about “Confessions Part II.”
Usher’s narrator on “Confessions Part II” isn’t terribly sympathetic. He’s permanently damaged his relationship, and he’s also been careless enough to bring another life into the world. Pretty soon, there’s going to be a little kid who might not have a tremendously stable home. Mostly, though, Usher’s narrator seems to be worried about himself. He’s admitting the truth, but he seems to want brownie points for the fact that he’s no longer lying, even though he’s long past the point where he could get away with lying. He sounds close to tears when he hits his big falsetto: “She opened up the door and didn’t wanna come near me!” What was this guy expecting?
When a song tells a story about a situation this messy and emotionally fraught, it’s tempting to judge the characters rather than the song itself. Usher’s narrator sounds like a jerk, and it’s a small jump to say that Usher himself must be a jerk. Then it’s another small jump to not liking the song, thinking of it simply as a serial cheater trying to paint himself in the best possible light. But if you love messiness, then there’s just a whole lot to like in the song. “Confessions Part II” has an easy, loping bounce that gives Usher the chance to sell the melodrama of those lyrics. Usher himself commits completely, wailing the song so intently that the world thought those really were his confessions. Maybe that’s why it’s so striking to see Usher having fun singing “Confessions Part II” at that Tiny Desk Concert — bringing so much joy to a song about a joyless scenario.
The “Confessions Part II” video is so funny. Future ATL director Chris Robinson opens on Usher in the booth at a recording studio, poring over handwritten lyrics, as he gets a call with the bad news. Then he walks out of the studio, singing the opening of “Confessions Part I” while his bodyguard walks him to a waiting SUV. He makes eye contact with the camera as he talks: “I know you hate me. I know I hurt you. But there’s more. Listen.” The car door slams, and “Confessions Part II” starts. That’s an opening. If Usher acted that well in his dramatic roles, then maybe his movie career would’ve gone better.
For the rest of the “Confessions Part II” video, Usher dances and strikes poses, sometimes on a piano, while admitting to all his character’s infidelities. He slides across a floor to his disgusted girlfriend, and when she’s not impressed, he just takes his shirt off. You can understand his logic. Through most of his life, this Usher character must’ve been able to solve just about every problem by taking his shirt off. This problem, however, will not simply disappear once Usher’s chest is bare. So he closes the video by staring into a mirror as it slow-motion shatters into a million pieces.
That video helped boost “Confessions Part II,” and so did the song’s all-star remix. The “Confessions Part II” remix opened with the sound of a phone ringing — Usher’s way of announcing the guest verse from the former Puff Daddy protege Shyne. At the time, Shyne was serving a 10-year prison sentence for attempted murder, assault, and reckless endangerment after getting into a shootout in a Manhattan nightclub. Shyne recorded his verse over the prison phone, and he gave his own version of his confessions: “Sitting in my cell, head about to burst/ Wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t shoot first/ Had it made, sorry for the ricochet/ But I’d be in the grave if I didn’t let it spray.” (Shyne’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2000 Barrington Levy collab “Bad Boyz,” peaked at #57.)
The “Confessions Part II” remix also had Usher singing about his own life, addressing his ex Chilli: “I took in your kid, did everything that you wanted me to/ Now I’m hearing shit about you fronting on radio interviews/ Do it make you feel good to lie, even though I know you wanna cry?/ Hey, if you were gonna tell it, then you should’ve told everything instead of making me the bad guy.” Then we get verses from Kanye West and Twista, both fresh off of their own #1 hit “Slow Jamz.”
It’s been what? A week and a half since Kanye West first showed up in this column? Somehow, he’s only become a more repellant public figure since then. Shyne was in prison for attempted murder when the “Confessions Part II” remix came out, and nobody batted an eye. But now Kanye is out here talking Nazi shit, and when he shows up on the remix, it’s like: “Ew.” When Usher toured arenas in 2004, Kanye was his opening act. Kanye would come out during Usher’s set to do his verse from the “Confessions Part II” remix: “You went raw dog when you beat it? That’s when she gon’ tell you to beat it.” Please enjoy this fleeting glimpse of the old Kanye, who seemed capable of joy and empathy and who wasn’t attempting to turn antisemitism into a public crusade.
It’s one thing to sing a song about putting yourself into a terrible predicament. It’s another thing to push that song to #1, especially when most people think you’re singing about yourself on that song. But Confessions was the pop event of 2004, and Usher simply could not be stopped. Even after “Confessions Part II,” Usher wasn’t done. He’ll be back in this column again soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Confessions Part 3,” his genuinely funny 2006 parody/sequel to “Confessions Part II”:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Plies’ 2010 anti-snitching version of “Confessions Part II,” which is just called “Confessions”:
(Plies’ highest-charting single, the 2008 Ne-Yo collab “Bust It Baby (Part 2),” peaked at #7. It’s a 4. People were really into part-two songs in the ’00s.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do — to tell you, the woman I love, that you should buy it here.