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Original release date: 23 March, 2004
Label: Arista Records

Picture the scene.

It’s 2004, and in a dark club somewhere, the writhing, sweating bodies of dancers are glistening under strobe lights. Y2k is in full effect: there are copious low-rise jeans, chunky gold chains and stitch braids in the crowd. The only thing that could make the atmosphere even more electric and on-trend are the opening notes of Usher’s Superstar. Over titillating R&B production, Usher’s heavenly falsetto, delivered so smoothly, tricks listeners into feeling like they’re the subject of his affection: “This is for you, you/ My number one.

At this point, the words “Usher” and “sex symbol” were synonymous. A noughties pin-up – often shirtless, all boyish charm and dazzling smiles – Usher was known for singing about love, women, and his love of women. He first made his name at just 15 with his (perhaps alarmingly) sexually charged self-titled LP in 1994, but it would take a few years before the equally lustful single You Make Me Wanna… would cast him as a new R&B frontrunner destined for superstardom (he was, after all, a protégé of L.A. Reid and Babyface’s legendary LaFace Records). 

By the time Confessions was released, in March 2004, Usher had fulfilled that destiny. The album arrived amid frantic media speculation about Usher’s personal life. The singer had just gone through a high-profile split from long-term girlfriend Chilli of TLC fame, leading press and fans alike to believe the album title was autobiographical. Despite being harrassed, both artists kept the details of their relationship close to their chest. Instead, Usher let the rumours fester, using the momentum of the Gossip Industrial Complex to execute one of the most impeccable concept albums of the decade. 

Stories of romance, betrayal and regret were crafted under the watchful eye of era-defining producers like Jermaine Dupri, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dre & Vidal, and Sean Garrett. The title track and its inescapable follow up, Confessions Pt. II, ride the classic affair narrative – a steamy night resulting in an unplanned pregnancy – through conversational turns of phrase that take on rap-like flows: “I was hand in hand in the Beverly Centre/ Like man/ Not givin’ a damn who sees me,” he sings on Confessions, as if making a sneaky, semi-remorseful phone call to a friend. It was later revealed by Usher that this major plot line was inspired by Dupri’s own experiences of unexpected paternity, but the song’s ambiguous nature, communicated through Usher’s knowing, theatrical delivery, made the possibility all the more gripping.  

Confessions saw Usher take his polished R&B in new directions, too. Bad Girl ditches repentance for sleazy club antics, anchored by an irresistible Curtis Mayfield-style guitar lick: “Now I’ve seen a lot of broads/ All on one accord/ Everyone looked the same but/ Take a look at my dame.” Then there is the straight-up, raucous crunk&B of Yeah!, the student union megahit that keeps the devious energy high and dives into the first throes of infidelity: “I got so caught up, I forgot she told me/ Her and my girl used to be the best of homies/ Next thing I knew, she was all up on me screaming.” Boasting perhaps one of the most memorable synth lines in pop, the Lil Jon and Ludacris-assisted track was an immediate dancefloor smash. Second single Burn is more introspective and an opportunity to reveal his impressive vocal range. A gospel-trained singer, Usher’s runs take on an almost supernatural quality, his falsettos seamlessly shapeshifting into Chaka-worthy knockouts as he agonises over letting go of a failed relationship: “I’m twisted ‘cause one side of me’s telling me that I need to move on/ On the other side I, wanna break down and cry.”

Confessions’ true brilliance lies in its unabashed vulnerability and expressive displays of accountability – an act that, for a mainstream male pop star in the emotionally stunted aughts, felt bold and intentional. This approach would serve him well. By the end of the year, mainstream pop music was dominated by Black artists, from OutKast’s Hey Ya! and Ciara’s Goodies to Snoop and Pharrell’s Drop It Like It’s Hot. But the king of the charts was categorically Usher: sales-wise, he was the most successful act in America that year, bagging four chart-topping singles and holding those spots for a total of 28 weeks – the first act on the Billboard Hot 100 to do so.

But Confessions is more than a hit record; it’s a masterclass in storytelling. While guesswork swirled around the album’s source materials, Usher’s cunning use of this media frenzy revealed a gifted raconteur. What happened with Chilli wasn’t the point (though she later claimed that Usher had committed the “ultimate no-no” in their relationship, and she would “never take him back”). It was his ability to harness this experience to craft something that felt real. As he candidly admits on That’s What It’s Made For: “Listen up, I got a story to tell.”