The Number Ones

October 30, 2004

The Number Ones: Usher & Alicia Keys’ “My Boo”

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.

Everyone loves a winner. In the 2004 calendar year, Usher spent a grand total of 28 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — 54% of the year. Just before his last run on the top of the charts, Usher found himself faced with the unexpected task of entertaining an unhappy arena crowd, saving another superstar’s night. He pulled it off. At that moment, there was nothing that Usher couldn’t pull off.

Jay-Z was supposed to retire in 2003. That was the whole deal. He released his retirement LP The Black Album. He played a farewell show at Madison Square Garden, with his fake jersey ascending into the real rafters. He secured himself an office job as the head of Def Jam Recordings. But retirement didn’t really suit Jay-Z. Less than a year after the release of The Black Album, Jay-Z and R. Kelly came out with Unfinished Business, their second collaborative album, and they headed out on a co-headlining tour. It didn’t end well.

Throughout their tour, Jay-Z and R. Kelly were not getting along. R. Kelly bailed on a couple of shows, blaming problems with the lighting. In late October of 2004, a month in, their tour came to Madison Square Garden — a homecoming for Jay in the exact same spot where he’d held his farewell show. The show was set up for Jay and Kelly to trade off mini-sets throughout the night, coming together as a duo at the end. During his first mini-set, though, R. Kelly told the crowd, “Two people were waving guns at me. I can’t do no show like that. This shit is over.” Then he dropped his mic and walked offstage.

After a confusing few minutes that easily could’ve ended in a riot, Jay-Z told the crowd that he didn’t need R. Kelly and that he had enough hits to finish the show himself. Jay also told the crowd, “I got a couple of people.” One of those people was Usher, who’d gone to the show as a spectator. At the time, I remember reading stories about Usher running backstage, downloading a few MP3s of his own songs, burning them onto a CD, handing the CD to Jay’s DJ, and running out onstage. Usher sang his own no-frills mini-set, and I can’t imagine anyone in that crowd going home sad. They came to see R. Kelly, and they got to see Usher instead. That’s an upgrade.

At one point, Kelly tried to return to the stage, and someone in Jay-Z’s camp pepper-sprayed Kelly and his entourage. The next day, Jay went on Hot 97 and clowned Kelly for being “insecure,” claiming that Kelly was freaking out because Jay was steadily getting bigger crowd reactions. (Kelly later admitted that he probably hadn’t seen any guns in the crowd.) Kelly then sued Jay, and Jay countersued and made fun of the lawsuit on the remix to a song that’ll soon appear in this column. I tell this story not just because I love the lore surrounding A-list rap beefs but to illustrate something. That year, Usher had the magic touch. He couldn’t lose. By putting in a quick surprise performance, Usher could rescue a big night that could’ve collapsed into chaos without him. He was in a rare zone, a zone that few pop stars will ever touch.

The day after that Jay-Z show, Usher extended his chart winning streak. Earlier that month, Usher released the “special edition” of Confessions, the blockbuster album that had come out seven months earlier and dominated the Hot 100 all year. The Confessions reissue had a few remixes and bonus tracks, and it was almost transparently pitched as a way to sell more copies of Confessions to people who’d already bought the album in the first place. The ploy worked so well that it eventually became standard practice for most big pop albums. The special edition of Confessions became the canonical version, and one of its bonus tracks, a duet with another crossover-friendly R&B singer, became the album’s fourth #1 hit. Everything was coming up Usher.

Usher and Alicia Keys’ “My Boo” has nothing to do with Ghost Town DJ’s. Instead, this particular “My Boo” started out as a potential Confessions track. Usher and his regular collaborator Jermaine Dupri co-wrote “My Boo” with two other writers from that whole Atlanta R&B orbit. One of them was Manuel Seal, a regular Dupri collaborator who’d co-written a bunch of hits, including Usher’s “Nice & Slow” and “U Remind Me.”

Adonis Shropshire, the other “My Boo” co-writer, had been middle-school buddies with Usher in Chattanooga, and he’d moved to Atlanta and worked on tracks from artists like Jennifer Lopez, B2K, and Beyoncé. Shropshire also co-wrote P. Diddy’s hits “I Need A Girl (Part One)” and “I Need A Girl (Part Two),” the former of which featured Usher. (“Part One” peaked at #2. It’s a 5. “Part Two” peaked at #4. It’s a 6.) Adonis Shropshire was usually credited as just plain Adonis. If I’d been blessed and/or cursed with the first name Adonis, I would’ve done the exact same thing. (Alicia Keys also got a songwriting credit on “My Boo,” but that came later.)

“My Boo” wasn’t done in time for the Confessions release. While working on the LP, Usher recorded a demo for the track. “My Boo” was written as a duet, and Usher wanted to record the song with a big female star. Specifically, the general belief is that “My Boo” was written as an Usher/Beyoncé duet. Maybe Usher just couldn’t get that deal done in time for the album’s release, or maybe Beyoncé, who was already in a public relationship with another very famous artist, just didn’t want to sing a love-song duet with Usher. On the demo version of “My Boo,” Usher sang with Kortney Kaycee Leveringston, who sounded a lot like Beyoncé. When the “My Boo” demo leaked, it was often mislabeled as a Beyoncé duet.

Usher would later work with Beyoncé, but she didn’t become his duet partner on “My Boo.” Instead, that role went to Alicia Keys, who was on a huge winning streak of her own. Three years earlier, Keys had reached #1 with her debut single “Fallin’.” Keys also sold seven million copies of her debut album Songs In A Minor and won the Grammy for Best New Artist. In 2003, Keys followed her debut with The Diary Of Alicia Keys, which eventually went quintuple platinum and sent three songs into the top 10. The biggest of those hits was first single “You Don’t Know My Name,” a lush Kanye West-produced track with a weirdly long mid-song spoken-word soliloquy. (“You Don’t Know My Name” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

The second single from The Diary Of Alicia Keys did almost as well as the first. Alicia wrote and produced the old-school piano ballad “If I Ain’t Got You” herself, and the song peaked at #4. (It’s a 7.) The Diary Of Alicia Keys eventually got its own special-edition re-release, and one of the bonus tracks was a remix of “If I Ain’t Got You” with Usher. These two stars were perfectly happy to make goo-goo eyes at each other on record.

The premise of “My Boo” is that the two singers had been together years earlier, when they were both kids. (The song only works if both singers are already famous; both of them have a line about “before all the fame and people screamin’ your name.”) These two narrators have been apart for a long time, but they still think of each other fondly. You don’t have to be a famous R&B singer to relate to a song like that. Unless things ended in some jarring and traumatic way, you’ll probably always feel a certain connection to your first love, whether or not that person is in your life in anymore. On “My Boo,” Usher takes it all the way back to childhood: “Do you remember, girl? I was the one who gave you your first kiss/ ‘Cause I remember, girl’ I was the one who said, ‘Put your lips like this.'” The childhood-romance nostalgia is strong.

Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal are credited as the producers of “My Boo,” but they had help. According to most accounts, “My Boo” had a prominent ghost-producer: No I.D., the Chicago rap beatmaker who handled almost all the production on Common’s classic 1994 album Resurrection and who famously mentored a young Kanye West. (These days, No I.D. seems to be Jay-Z’s favorite collaborator. No I.D. is the only producer on Jay’s most recent album, 2017’s 4:44.) No I.D.’s beat for “My Boo” is a breezy hip-hop lope with a lovely chopped-up ’70s soul sample. The beat is built on a pitch-shifted piece of “He’s All I’ve Got,” a 1977 track from Barry White’s old girl-group protegés Love Unlimited. (Love Unlimited’s highest-charting single, 1972’s “Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love,” peaked at #14. The Love Unlimited Orchestra, the group’s old backing ensemble, has appeared in this column.)

That sample works. You can definitely hear where early Kanye learned how to chop up soul samples in appealing ways. No I.D. turns the clip of “He’s All I’ve Got” into a distant echo — a string-loop, a sighing ahh-ahh effect. He and his collaborators add slow, strutting drums and acoustic-guitar noodles, nothing mixed too high. Usher and Alicia Keys both lock in with that track.

In their own ways, Usher and Alicia are both classic soul-ballad crooners, singers who put a premium on conveying intimacy. On “My Boo,” they don’t show a ton of on-record chemistry; it definitely sounds like the kind of duet that was recorded by two singers in two different studios, weeks or months apart. But they both sing “My Boo” gracefully, getting tons of warmth and fondness across. The best parts are their little moments of call-and-response interplay. On the intro: “I don’t know about y’all, but I know about us, and uh, it’s the only way we know how to rock.” On the bridge: “My oh! My oh! My oh, my, my booo!” Those moments aren’t about sentiment; they’re about the sheer joy of connection. “My Boo” is ultimately a slight song, but it goes down so easy. On the radio in 2004, it sounded like cotton candy. I like cotton candy.

The video for “My Boo” opens, naturally, with a good 30 seconds of the excellent Confessions deep cut “Bad Girl.” (“What y’all know about a! Super-modelll!” That falsetto!) Future ATL director Chris Robinson shows Usher in a room club full of girls. But then we see that this fictional “Bad Girl” video is merely playing on TV, and Usher himself turns it off. He’s not in the “Bad Girl” headspace right then. Instead, Usher is feeling pensive, meditating on that one person that will always have his heart. At the same time, Alicia Keys, all made up and looking good, is living some kind of glamorous luxury existence, but she’s thinking about Usher, too. The two of them are stuck in their memories as they move through New York.

The video ends with the big meet-up. Usher and Alicia Keys come face-to-face in Times Square, which photographs well but which is, in reality, probably the least romantic place on the face of the planet. (The video would be more lifelike if someone ran up to Usher and Alicia to ask them if they like live comedy.) Usher and Alicia are only on camera together for a few seconds, and they almost kiss without ever quite getting there. Their onscreen chemistry is real enough that there were immediately a bunch of rumors about the two of them dating. Of all Usher’s chart-toppers, “My Boo” is probably the only one where he doesn’t really dance in the video. The storyline calls out for a big dance number at the end, too, but maybe Alicia just couldn’t keep up.

“My Boo” is the reason that the special edition of Confessions exists. Barry Weiss, head of the Zomba label group, said as much in a USA Today article at the time: “We thought here is a really nifty way to keep the energy going on an album beyond its normal life cycle. The goal is to try to get a diamond album out of this… ‘My Boo’ was the vehicle that prompted us to do this whole exercise.” At that point, Confessions was already quintuple platinum, and the scheme worked. The special edition came with a few new songs, a poster, and a letter from Usher to his fans. The stunt definitely moved more copies of Confessions, which finally went diamond in 2008. (Please note that record executives used to use words like “nifty.”)

“My Boo” turned out to be the last #1 hit from the Confessions album cycle. Usher followed “My Boo” with the panting uptempo jam “Caught Up,” and that song peaked at #8. (It’s an 8.) Usher had finally reached his limit, and Confessions would not equal the Michael Jackson record of five #1 hits from a single album. It came close, though.

In grand Michael Jackson fashion, Usher waited a good five years to follow up his world-conquering blockbuster album. After he finished releasing Confessions singles, Usher showed up on a few hits with his peers. He teamed up with his “Yeah!” partners Lil Jon and Ludacris for the #3 hit “Lovers And Friends” and with R. Kelly on the #20 hit “Same Girl.” (“Lovers And Friends” is a 4.) Usher tried acting again, starring in the 2005 flop In The Mix and spending a few months in Chicago on Broadway.

Alicia Keys took time coming out with a new album, too. She released a platinum Unplugged record, published a book of lyrics and poems, and took supporting roles in movies: Smokin’ Aces, The Nanny Diaries, The Secret Life Of Bees. For both singers, “My Boo” might’ve been the end of an era. But both singers would return, and both of them will be in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: Just last week, DaBoii, my favorite ex-member of the once-great Bay Area rap group SOB x RBE, rapped over a “My Boo” sample on a song that’s also titled “My Boo.” Here it is:

THE 10S: Fabolous’ classic New York head-knocker “Breathe,” the song where Just Blaze somehow turns a Supertramp sample into the hardest shit in the world, peaked at #10 behind “My Boo.” How “Breathe” addresses the haters and underestimaters and rides up on ’em like they escalators: They shook up and hooked up to respirators, on they last breath talking to investigators. It’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. You can buy my oh! My oh! My oh, my, my boook here.

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