The Number Ones

March 15, 2008

The Number Ones: Usher’s “Love In This Club” (Feat. Young Jeezy)

Stayed at #1:

3 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.

The phrase “meet me in the bathroom” carries certain connotations. In 2017, the music journalist Lizzy Goodman used Meet Me In The Bathroom as the title of her great oral history of the glamorously scummy early-’00s New York rock scene. Since then, that book has been adapted into a documentary that I keep meaning to watch. Both book and movie take their titles from a 2003 Strokes song, and the intent of those titles is pretty clear. Meet Me In The Bathroom is all about a libertine moment, a time when people were constantly arranging restroom meetups for reasons related to sex and/or cocaine.

But the Strokes and their contemporaries aren’t the only only people with histories of meeting in bathrooms. Throughout pop history, the nightclub bathroom has been a site of all sorts of illicit, hygienically questionable activities. On Usher’s 2008 chart-topper “Love In This Club,” the Atlanta rap star then known as Young Jeezy — he’s just Jeezy now — says the phrase “meet me in the bathroom” verbatim. He’s not making a Strokes reference, but he is describing the same impulse that drove that Strokes song.

Plenty of people go out to nightclubs to meet someone and to get laid. Sometimes, though, people get so horny in the nightclub environment that they’d rather not go through with the ritual of leaving the club and rushing out to an apartment or a hotel room. Sometimes, they want to make love right there in the club. Sometimes, they don’t even care if people are watching. This is the great subject of Usher’s “Love In This Club,” a song that is emphatically not built around a metaphor.

“I will definitely say that I’ve had a moment or two in a stall.” That was Usher in a 2013 Entertainment Weekly interview about the meanings of some of his hits. In the case of “Love In This Club,” Usher didn’t need to do too much explaining: “Well, this song is about fucking.” It’s always fun when someone says the thing so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said. Nightclub sex is a messy proposition, but messiness has always played an important role in the public-facing side of Usher’s private life.

In 2008, Usher was facing the difficult proposition of following up Confessions, the 2004 album that remains one of this century’s biggest pop-music blockbusters. Confessions went diamond and spun off four different #1 hits. It’s virtually impossible to do numbers like that. If you accomplish something like that, you face terrible pressure to do it again, and Usher never even came close. In the time after Confessions, Usher did something that put him in danger of losing his audience’s devotion: He got married.

Pop stars get married all the time. It usually doesn’t plunge their careers into uncertainty, even when the pop stars in question are fantastical heartthrob types like Usher. But Usher’s marriage was different. In 2005, the 27-year-old Usher started dating Tameka Foster, who was about eight years older than Usher and who worked as his stylist. Usher and Foster married in 2007, and he became stepfather to her three kids. Their son Usher Raymond V was born that same year. Early in 2008, Usher’s estranged father died of a heart attack. That whole year would’ve marked a period of heavy transition for Usher even if he wasn’t trying to make another ridiculously successful album.

There were all sorts of rumors that Usher’s mother Jonnetta Patton, who’d been his manager for his entire career, did not approve of his relationship. Usher’s mother wasn’t at his wedding. Around the same time that he got married, Usher stopped working with his mother and hired Jennifer Lopez’s manager Benny Medina. Usher insisted that he hadn’t fired his mother, that he’d just given her a chance to retire. In a 2008 TRL appearance, Usher got visibly upset about the various rumors surrounding his personal life: “My wife had nothing to do with me firing my mother — nothing like that, that’s trash.”

Usher’s album Here I Stand is his attempt at a mature, emotional grown-man R&B record, a full picture of himself as a new husband and father. This version of Usher presumably wasn’t fucking strange women in nightclub bathrooms very often, but that’s the basic idea behind “Love In This Club,” the one song on Here I Stand that actually managed to make an impact. Like “Yeah!,” the ridiculously successful first single from Confessions, “Love In This Club,” was the horny and uptempo red herring, the song that presented an image that the rest of the LP would refute.

Just like “Yeah!,” “Love In This Club” found Usher teaming up with arguably the hottest producer and rapper in Atlanta at the time. In the case of “Love In This Club,” that producer was Polow Da Don. Polow had worked with Fergie on her chart-toppers “London Bridge” and “Glamorous,” and he’d also produced big hits for Southern rappers like Ludacris and Rich Boy. Polow had the idea for “Love In This Club” after going to the 2007 VMAs in Las Vegas. He tried to capture a version of the Euro-dance sound that was huge in Vegas clubs, but he wanted to turn that sound into something compatible with what was happening in Atlanta. Polow told MTV, “It’s like a Euro, worldly type of sound, but it blends with the hood sound. I was like, ‘This is perfect for Usher.'”

Shortly after the release of “Love In This Club,” a YouTuber figured out that Polow Da Don had used two GarageBand presets when making his “Love In This Club” beat. That’s something that more and more producers were doing around that time; the producers of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” had done something similar. The shimmery, strobing keyboards of “Love In This Club” and the airy keyboard riff both came for free with GarageBand. The YouTube video about “Love In This Club” made the rounds, and Polow admitted that those sounds had come pre-loaded on one of his keyboards. Polow was pretty defensive about the whole thing: “If a 10-year-old can make ‘Love In This Club’ and save Usher’s career and make Black women want to fuck him again after they was done with him for getting married, then shit, he’s a genius just like me.”

A whole lot of people were actually involved with “Love In This Club.” The song has seven credited writers, including Usher, Polow, and Keith Thomas, a onetime Christian-pop figure who’s been in this column for producing Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” and Vanessa Williams’ “Save The Best For Last.” Polow also says that he brought in Robin Thicke, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, to play piano on “Love In This Club,” though I can’t find any official record of Thicke being on the track. (The two keyboardists are two other credited co-writers: Darnell Dalton and Lamar Taylor, the duo known as the Ambassadorz.)

This whole team was apparently necessary for this song about wanting to fuck in a club. Polow claimed that he wrote the song specifically to counteract Usher’s married-dad image: “I had to get Usher out the house a couple of times to show him what it is to be out and about. It was right around the time he was having his newborn. We made the record trying to grab the moment, grab the people and shock people… This song helps him do what a few greats have been able to do: Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt. When they get married, they make the girls still want them.”

Usher definitely sells “Love In This Club.” He sounds deeply freaky. “Love In This Club” is almost defiantly tawdry, but Usher wails it with wild-eyed passion. If he’d sung “Love In This Club” with any sort of distance, I don’t think the song would work. Instead of arching an eyebrow, Usher invests the whole idea with insane levels of emotion: “I’ma give it to you non-stop! And I don’t care who’s waaaaaatching, watching, watching!” This would imply that Usher’s not even bothering to find a bathroom stall. He’s just out there fucking on the dancefloor. That’s next-level freakery. I appreciate the shamelessness.

I appreciate the shamelessness of the beat, too. Polow Da Don might’ve used GarageBand presets, but he found the right GarageBand presets for that moment. These were the early days of the EDM boom, and even rap and R&B records were starting to play around with the candy-floss keyboards of sleek European superclub anthems. On “Love In This Club,” Polow slows those sounds down and finds some intersection with the gurgling, gasping Atlanta rap style that was increasingly known as trap music. Polow also brought in one of the kings of trap to rap on the song.

Jay Jenkins was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and he spent his childhood moving around Atlanta and the smaller towns surrounding the city. As a young man, Jay Jenkins, then known as Lil J, made a lot of money selling drugs; he had some kind of relationship with the notoriously flashy drug crew known as the Black Mafia Family. Lil J tried to put his money to work as a rap mogul. On the advice of the hugely successful Atlanta record exec known as Coach K, Lil J tried rapping himself, and his towering wheeze soon became a hugely important part of the Atlanta trap underground, especially when Jenkins adapted the new rap name of Young Jeezy.

Jeezy’s 2005 mixtape Trap Or Die was a lightning-bolt work, and he quickly followed it with Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, the Def Jam debut that streamlined that mixtape sound for mainstream audiences. Jeezy rapped almost exclusively about selling drugs, and did it with a simplistic intensity. Over the churning gothic synths of producers like Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy, Jeezy sounded like he was a million feet tall — like an ancient statue had come to life to shout about kilo prices. His style struck a chord.

When I moved to New York in the summer of 2005, Jeezy T-shirts, with their instantly recognizable angry-snowman logo, were everywhere. (I still have mine in a drawer somewhere.) In my first week working at the Village Voice, I interviewed Jeezy in a Manhattan record-company conference room, and I was totally starstruck. It seemed utterly impossible that I was sitting and talking with a mythic figure like Young Jeezy the Snowman.

Jeezy didn’t lose his criminal connections when he got famous. In Atlanta, he got into a serious feud with fellow trap titan Gucci Mane. They’d both broken out with the single “Icy,” and Jeezy was furious when Gucci wouldn’t let him put the song on Let’s Get It. That feud turned deadly when Jeezy put a bounty on Gucci Mane’s chain and when a botched robbery led to the death of Pookie Loc, a rapper affiliated with Jeezy’s Corporate Thugz Entertainment label. Pookie’s shooting was ruled self-defense, and Gucci wasn’t charged. The beef between Jeezy and Gucci raged for 15 years before an otherwise-tense 2020 Verzuz battle ended with Jeezy and Gucci performing a euphoric “Icy” together. (Gucci Mane’s two highest-charting singles as lead artist, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars/Kodak Black collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. As a guest, Gucci will eventually appear in this column.)

The violence surrounding Jeezy didn’t prevent him from quickly becoming an A-list rap star. Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 went double platinum, and Jeezy got to #4 with the Akon collab “Soul Survivor.” (It’s an 8.) Jeezy’s 2006 follow-up Thug Motivation 102: The Inspiration didn’t have any top-10 hits, but it still went platinum. Jeezy’s larger-than-life style was becoming hugely influential; Kanye West sampled the beat and the ad-libs from Jeezy’s #14 hit “I Luv It” on his own Graduation single “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.”

Jeezy was always an unlikely pop star. There was nothing melodic in Jeezy’s delivery, and he really only ever rapped about selling drugs. But Polow Da Don’s “Love In This Club” beat sounded like the softest, clubbiest possible version of Jeezy’s colossal synth music. Gucci Mane has said that he was originally supposed to be on “Love In This Club,” but Jeezy was recording in the same studio as Usher, and he really wanted a crack at the track. Polow wasn’t sure about it, but Jeezy sounded just right on the song.

Jeezy’s never been a technically complex rapper, and his verse on “Love In This Club” doesn’t have the same sly, verbose charm that Jeezy’s fellow Atlanta trap star T.I. brought to Justin Timberlake’s “My Love.” But Jeezy’s bulldozer groan seems like it was made for “Love In This Club.” He brings huge seriousness to silly pickup lines: “Sexually, mentally, physically, emotionally/ I’ll be like your medicine, you’ll take every dose of me/ It’s going down on aisle three, I’ll bag you like some groceries/ And every time you think about about it, you gon’ want some mo’ of me.” Jeezy doesn’t change his style at all to make it work on a pop song, and that’s why it works.

“Love In This Club” certainly isn’t a major work from Usher. It’s a little bit craven and a little bit desperate, though its horniness is plenty convincing. But I mostly like “Love In This Club.” It’s one of those rare moments when pop-star desperation actually works to a track’s benefit. The song’s triumphant, celebratory qualities might be a little forced, but I like the way those drums lurch and those keyboards buzz, and I like contrast between Usher’s wounded pleas and Jeezy’s thundering bellow.

Usher didn’t know about the Jeezy guest verse on “Love In This Club” until Polow played it for him in a club one night. When Usher heard it, he lit up. Soon, Usher heard that song a whole lot more. Polow Da Don leaked “Love In this Club” to DJs in February 2008, three months before Usher released Here I Stand. Usher blamed the leak on “internal conspiracy,” but Polow cheerfully told MTV that he’d been the one behind the leak. (Lil Jon had done the same thing with “Yeah!” four years earlier.)

After the leak, “Love In This Club” took off at radio and in clubs. Jeezy told MTV about the moment that the song leaked. He says he was at Platinum 21, an Atlanta strip club, and the DJ there played the song 15 times: “Keep in mind, I don’t have a copy of the song. I’m sitting in the corner like, ‘Damn!’ I’m in the strip club, they playing the song, and everybody loved it. Just to see it, it was like you can do records like that and still be you.”

For the “Love In This Club” video, Usher worked with the Brothers Strause, the special-effects guys who’d already made Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem. Usher spends most of the song romancing Keri Hilson, the stunning singer who’d just guested on Timbaland’s #3 hit “The Way I Are.” (“The Way I Are” is a 7. In 2009, Hilson got to #3 as lead artist with the Kanye West/Ne-Yo collab “Knock You Down.” That’s another 7.) Tons of other luminaries also make cameos: Diddy, Kanye West, Nelly, Rick Ross, Robin Thicke. At the end of the video, though, Hilson and all the other celebrities evaporate into the air, and Usher finds that he’s standing in a wrecked, apocalyptic landscape. This was supposed to set up the rest of the whole Here I Stand album experience. It didn’t really work.

Usher followed “Love In This Club” with “Love In This Club, Pt. 2,” which was a whole new song, not a remix. For “Pt. 2,” usher brought in guest appearances from Beyoncé and Lil Wayne, and the song peaked at #18. (Beyoncé has been in this column a bunch of times, and she’ll be back. Wayne will be in the column soon, too.) Usher’s other Here I Stand singles were flops; the serious-minded ballad “Moving Mountains” stalled out at #67. Here I Stand limped its way to platinum, which means it sold a tenth of what Confessions had moved.

Young Jeezy didn’t have too many more pop moments after “Love In This Club.” Later that year, he released his excellent album The Recession, and he got to #12 with the Kanye West collab “Put On,” which might be my favorite song from both Jeezy and Kanye. In 2009, Jeezy got to #8 as a guest on Rihanna’s “Hard.” (It’s a 7.) “Hard” marked the only time since “Love In This Club” that Jeezy’s been in the top 10. Jeezy hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2014, when his Jay-Z collab “Seen It All” peaked at #85. But Jeezy is now a recognized rap legend, and he continues to make pretty-good records and play big shows.

In retrospect, “Love In This Club” mostly made it to #1 mostly because it was the first new Usher single after Confessions and because it was the one moment from Here I Am where he really nodded to the sound of the moment. When Here I Am flopped, Usher fired Benny Medina and rehired his mother as his manager. His marriage to Tameka Foster ended in 2009. The whole Here I Am era was a huge setback for Usher, but he wasn’t done making hits quite yet. We’ll see Usher in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: In 2008, someone went mega-viral by programming the robots from the Rock-afire Explosion, the animatronic-animal house band from the shut-down kids’ chain Showbiz Pizza Place, to lip-sync the pop hits of the moment. Here’s the Rock-afire Explosion’s take on “Love In This Club,” which is some kind of masterpiece:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Mac Miller rapping over the “Love In This Club” beat alongside his friend Young Brody on the 2008 mixtape track “I’m In Love With This Bud”:

(As lead artist, Mac Miller’s highest-charting single is the posthumous 2020 track “Good News,” which peaked at #17. Miller reached #9 as a guest on Ariana Grande’s 2009 single “The Way.” It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At the end of the extremely entertaining 2019 movie Hustlers, Usher makes a cameo as himself. The moment represents the last great night to be a stripper at a particular Manhattan club before the financial crash, and it’s set to “Love In This Club.” Here it is:

(Britney Spears’ “Gimme More,” the other song in that scene, peaked at #3 in 2007. It’s an 8. Jennifer Lopez has already been in this column a bunch of times. Cardi B and Lizzo will arrive in this column in the days ahead.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. It’s what you want. It’s what you need. He’s got you trapped? It sets you free. Buy it here.

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