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Every Usher Song, Ranked

As befits an artist with the nickname “Mr. Entertainment,” Usher’s talent and success have been undeniable for so long that they seem more like a birthright. The superstar, who is somehow still just 45, landed in the studio with Jermaine Dupri and Diddy and had a role on Moesha before he was old enough to drive. As a dancer, his movements were sharp and weightless. By the time he was 18, he was molding R&B in his image. It didn’t matter if he was crooning teenage koans to lifelong commitment, sing-rapping about steamy one-night stands and infidelity, or ripping through ballads of reconciliation that blurred the lines between Keith Sweat and Stevie Wonder. Usher was always as smooth as satin, and his vulnerability and flawless skills would produce some of the most recognizable hits of the last three decades.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Usher Raymond IV was singing in church choir (and auditioning for McDonald’s commercials) by the age of 9. After his family moved to Atlanta, he landed on Star Search, where a performance of him holding a single note for 12 seconds caught the ear of Bryant Reid, an A&R at LaFace Records and the younger brother of the label’s then-CEO, L.A. Reid. Reid arranged an audition for the 13-year-old Usher to prove himself, and his rendition of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” in LaFace’s offices left employees swooning: “He was seducing [the female employees] with the confidence of someone who had done it before,” the record exec wrote in his 2016 memoir; he couldn’t sign him to a record deal fast enough.

But Usher had to endure growing pains. His eponymous 1994 debut was filled with repurposed hip-hop&B (“I’ll Make It Right”) and stately ballads (“The Many Ways”). On raunchier songs like “Can U Get Wit It,” it was hard not to cringe at a 15-year-old selling ****. Yet the talent and charisma were still there; his vocals were sweet and playful, even if at times he sounded like a Tevin Campbell impersonator, and his stories of teenage puppy love had a boy-band spark. Things began to crystallize on his sophomore album, My Way, as Usher locked in on his emerging bad boy–meets–boy next door formula. He had found a new writing and production comrade in Dupri, whose work had a crisper, sleeker feel that spoke to the more modern sensibilities of younger groups like Blackstreet and TLC. Their collaboration helped Usher sell his PG-13 romantic fantasies with more conviction.

Usher continued to show progress on 2001’s party-hopping 8701, with more emotional nuance and bolder vocal turns. But it was 2004’s Confessions that would ultimately solidify his legacy as a lothario with a heart of gold. He had taken it upon himself to get out in front of allegations of cheating on his ex, TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, blending stories of his and his collaborators’ infidelities to the point where the press and fans couldn’t tell what was fact or fiction. Confessions wasn’t just an album, it was a spectacle. To this day, it’s still one of the few R&B albums to sell more than 10 million copies in the United States alone, turning Usher into a bona fide pop star and inspiring a new generation of singers and rappers, from Summer Walker and Ari Lennox to Brent Faiyaz and Future.

Twenty years later — as Usher prepares to perform at the Super Bowl and release his tenth studio album, Coming Home — his legacy is one of adaptability. All of his post-Confessions projects, from 2008’s Here I Stand to 2018’s A with Atlanta producer Zaytoven, blend genres like EDM, rock, and contemporary rap with the R&B he’s been perfecting since the beginning. By the early 2020s, his catalogue and overall influence were large enough to warrant both a 100-show residency in Las Vegas (which spawned incredible performances and served as the potential catalyst for a celebrity breakup) and an intimate reimagining of his classics at NPR’s Tiny Desk.

In putting together this reappraisal of his music, I’ve gathered songs from every full-length Usher solo release, as well as bonus tracks, non-album singles, and soundtrack appearances — if he’s the lead artist on a song, it’s here. Interludes play a huge role in bringing Usher’s albums together, so regardless of individual quality, they felt important to include. However, there are no songs where Usher is a featured artist, no songs or remixes that weren’t present on the U.S. versions of albums (you’re safe, “Confessions Pt. 2 Remix”), no live renditions of songs, and no extended takes (RIP to the longer cut of “You Make Me Wanna …”). Usher’s catalogue isn’t perfect — there’s a handful of clunkers from just about every era — but all songs are ranked based on a combination of their importance to his canon and whether the writing, vocal performances, and production work together to create the best experience possible.

Usher’s career has thrived well into his 40s on an older model of stardom that’s become less and less attainable thanks to ever-shifting industry and social-media metrics. As he said near the beginning of his recent appearance on Shannon Sharpe’s Club Shay Shay interview series, “That work that you have to put in in order to own that moment and deserve that moment can’t be taken lightly.” So let’s examine that work fully and honestly. (Yeah!)

“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

I will not turn anything produced by up past 40 decibels.

“Will Work For Love,” Here I Stand (2008)

Usher wants to do anything — including but not limited to washing clothes and finding your TV remote — for love. But the image of him begging people for it on the street is about as hokey and tone-deaf as the soulless instrumental powering this ballad.

“This Christmas,” A LaFace Family Christmas (1993)

You shouldn’t try to cover Donny Hathaway’s holiday staple unless you’re really gonna go for it. And teenage Usher just doesn’t have the vocal range to make that happen.

“Guilty (feat. T.I),” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

Maybe it’s the chintzy gang vocals on loan from the “Love in This Club” era. Maybe it’s Usher sarcastically asking to be taken to jail for going to the club instead of spending a night at home. Maybe it’s T.I. victim-blaming his partner on his guest verse. None sound convincing; they just sound tired.

“Interlude 2 (Can’t Stop),” Usher (1994)

Teenage Usher has charisma to burn, but not enough to prevent him from straining his voice. He suffers from a lack of range here, not affection.

“Scream,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

Usher’s stadium pop/EDM phase had a good balance between genuine jams and clunkers. This belongs on the second list. “Scream” is generic fist-pumping music, the textbook definition of “no thoughts, just vibes.”

“Mind of A Man,” Hard II Love (2016)

“That night I said I was recording late/I wasn’t recording late” is hilarious enough of a line that it almost helped this interlude jump up a few spots. Almost.

“Smile Again,” Usher (1994)

The tamest attempt at ***** macking in Usher’s entire discography. He probably listens back to “You say he’s hurt you many times / But now that’s over, let me take his place / Your problems, I’ll erase” — and chuckles to himself.

“ATA,” A (2018)

Usher is capable of marvelous things when he’s in his rap bag. A, his 2018 collaboration with hip-hop’s favorite pianist, Zaytoven, has a handful of outstanding moments. “ATA” isn’t one of them. When the writing is this uninspired (“Put your *** through college, give me brain, education”), no amount of sharply mimicked cadences can save you.

“Confessions Pt. 2 Remix” (feat. Kanye West, Shyne, Twista, & Jermaine Dupri),” Confessions (2004)

The drama and mystery surrounding the expertly crafted “Confessions Part II” makes it a career-defining track for Usher. Unfortunately, this remix takes that idea and multiples it by four. Twista aside, none of the song’s guests bring the spark or intrigue to warrant thinking about it for most of its four-and-a-half-minute run time.

“Good Kisser” (2014)

How do you make a song called “Good Kisser” that’s this sexless?

“Wait For It,” The Hamilton Mixtape (2016)

On this cover from the hit Broadway musical, Usher recounts the spark between Aaron Burr and Theodosia with all the passion of a bored high-schooler picked to read Howard Zinn passages during class. How do you say that you love someone more than owning the entire state of Georgia and I still can’t feel that in your voice?

“Chains” (feat. Nas & Bibi Bourelly) (2015)

Racial tensions were high in 2015, as the Black Lives Matter movement inspired millions to protest police brutality, and celebrities and musicians the world over felt compelled to write songs about it. Usher’s first stab at this was a noble effort, but the result is a limp and lifeless ode to Black empowerment. The beat is the most urgent and shocking thing about this song (outside of the rare Usher utterance of “*****”).

“Champions,” Hard II Love (2016)

I don’t want to say this is as dull as John Legend and Common’s Oscar-winning “Glory” from the Selma soundtrack, but you can feel an awards speech being written at the same time the lyrics were (“I’ll fight for my country/You’ll fight for your country/We see the victory/They’ll get the victory”).

“Monstar,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

Imagine my disappointment when I turned this song on and it had nothing to do with the team of alien basketball players from Space Jam. Nobody wins when Usher phones in a one-night stand with all the **** of a tech bro logging into FanDuel.

“Call Me A Mack,” Poetic Justice: Music from the Motion Picture (1993)

Usher’s first major-label appearance, at the age of 13, is proof that he can sing, dance, and rap his way through the motions of a boilerplate new jack swing hit (he really runs into that rap verse on the bridge, salute the effort). This would be a bit higher, but the thought of a 15-year-old singing “Call me a mack” is too creepy to reward any more than I already am.

“Stay At Home” (feat. Future), A (2018)

Usher can catch a slippery rap flow when he needs to, but that can only take you so far when you’re rattling off generic flexes about trips and fashion shows for you to stunt on the new lady in your life. It doesn’t help that the Zaytoven beat and Future verse don’t sound particularly exciting, either. You ever hear a brand name in a verse and wonder how much the company paid to have it mentioned?

“So Many Girls,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

This sounds like a night at the club, and not in a good way. A plain “you could be the one girl I pick out of the million I could choose from” song that barely musters the energy to sound amped about it. The corny rhymes in that spoken-word hook (“Brazilian, I swear I got a million / Egyptian, do you fit that description?”) say it all.

“Hot Thing” (feat. A$AP Rocky), Looking 4 Myself (2012)

A bonus track from Looking 4 Myself and another of Usher’s many *****-club anthems. But it’s a recycled wash, not as fascinating as the show floor or as steamy as the backroom. Usher’s layered harmonies on the second chorus, Pharrell’s stabbing synths and steel drum, and a feature from a young A$AP Rocky are nice additions, but you won’t remember any of it by the time you get back home.

“What’s Your Name” (feat., Here I Stand (2008)

Usher can sell a chance encounter with a new lover in his sleep, and he does a decent enough job on “What’s Your Name.” This time, it’s the beat that fails him:’s synth jumps and stomping drums are cold and sterile — the kinds of sounds you’d expect to hear in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Sixteen years removed, it’s a wonder how this moved anyone on the dance floor.

“Comin’ For X-Mas?” (1995)

The second Christmas song Usher made is at least an original. But it’s easy to see why he never made another. This one sounds like a label obligation, the kind to be packaged with a Black Elf on the Shelf on release.

“Come Back,” My Way (1997)

The “please don’t leave me” ballad is an Usher specialty — every album has at least a handful — but this one is as nondescript as any he’s made. It’s also hard to take anything he’s saying seriously over this cheesy interpolation of Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman” (which was already famously sampled on Tupac’s “California Love” two years prior).

“Just Like Me,” My Way (1997)

Usher turns in a decent performance but this works better as a Lil’ Kim solo track. While he croons his way through another story about how a woman could possibly reject his advances, Kim is flashing a ***** at male groupies and chastising them for keeping her picture in their *****-*** hooptie.

“U R The One,” 8701 (2001)

Another “love at first sight” song that checks off clichés (you have a man, we can both pick from others but I want you) and barely justifies its own right to exist. At least Soulshock & Karlin’s shuffle beat is pleasant.

“Red Light,” Confessions (2004)

Like “U R the One” but with 125 percent more wistfully staring out the passenger side window of your car.

“Show Me,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

“How’s life? / Great / Everybody’s goin’ through somethin’ / You gotta get over it / You can’t go around / Let’s just enjoy the time.” If Usher sounds this bored singing lines like he’s reading them off a teleprompter, why should I care?

“I Cry,” (2020)

Usher’s voice and writing style is more suited to romance than it is to getting people to care about Important Causes. “I Cry,” which broadly tackles issues of systemic racism, sounds like a Black Lives Matter lawn sign in a neighborhood with no Black people in it.

“Love ‘Em All,” Versus (2010)

I guess one way to freshen up the same “I have so many girls, but you’re the one I really want” story is to just say “**** it, I love ’em all!”

“Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home),” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

The first single from Raymond v. Raymond, “Hey Daddy” has all the buzz of new love. But it’s once again dampened by those **** gang vocals (sorry, they pop up a lot on this list) and uninspired asks to “throw that up in the air” and that she “already knows what it is.” Yawn. At least his sense of **** makes it easy to invest in Usher’s domestic fantasy

“Looking 4 Myself” (feat. Luke Steele), Looking 4 Myself (2012)

A dip into self-care (and light romantic gaslighting) that’s Top 40–plain enough to hear at Target. It doesn’t leave much of an impression outside of Rico Love’s beat, which is a lively slice of digi-funk.

“Let Me,” Hard II Love (2016)

Of all the younger artists’ styles for Usher to siphon in the mid-2010s, PARTYNEXTDOOR’s moody R&B makes a lot of sense. The PARTY-produced “Let Me” sounds like it would fit on any OVO project from the era and Usher does a decent job of inhabiting that aesthetic. The herky-jerky sound of the “beep, beep, beep” near the end of the first verse is a nice touch.

“Interlude 1,” Usher (1994)

An interlude as fleeting and superfluous as a morning ***.

“I Can’t Let U Go,” 8701 (2001)

Try-hard rap-rock hybrids were all the rage in the late ’90s and early aughts. R&B-rock hybrids were worse.

“Intro,” Here I Stand (2008)

A stately ballad that sounds more like an unfinished draft for a Bond film than the intro to the follow-up to an album like Confessions.

“Crash,” Hard II Love (2016)

Hard II Love was a hard shift back to the R&B-rap fusions Usher made his name on, but “Crash” skews closer to his pop-EDM work. Catchy melodies, his lilting falsetto, and the feeling of security that comes from Usher giving all of himself to a lover (“Would you mind if I hold onto / you so I won’t crash?”) give this one a decent spark.  

“Peace Sign,” A (2018)

Zaytoven gave Usher some of his most muted beats for A, but the production on “Peace Sign” flows like dark liquor clanging against the side of a glass. It’s also hard to be mad at a song where someone’s legs form a peace sign during ***.

“The Many Ways,” Usher (1994)

Sounds destined to be a hit at every middle-school dance for the rest of eternity.

“I Don’t Know” (feat. P. Diddy), 8701 (2001)

An early aughts song that starts with a Diddy verse is sus out the gate, but “I Don’t Know” has a few things going for it: the bridge where the otherwise middling beat unfolds into something elegant with synths and strings; Pharrell shouting out ghetto, suburban, and international girls; and Usher setting off the party after the average person’s bedtime.

“***” (feat., Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

Can’t even lie, did his thing here. The only No. 1 single from Raymond v. Raymond, will’s jumping synths and slight chants over digital claps make “***” slightly better than “Can’t Stop.” (But if I never hear Usher say “pow, pow, pow” or “wow, oh wow” ever again, it’ll still be too soon.)

“Superstar (Interlude),” Confessions (2004)

Only this low by virtue of being too short and for not just being “Superstar.”

“Good Good” (feat. 21 Savage & Summer Walker), Coming Home (2024)

Collaborating with younger artists is a mixed bag for Usher, but his smooth croons and pleas for romantic honesty fit well with guests Summer Walker and 21 Savage. It’s not amazing, but Walker’s duet feels like a natural fit and Usher makes this one of the more friendly breakup songs in his catalogue — the way he sings “Your family love me like I’m family” is enough to warrant a chuckle.

“I Will,” My Way (1997)

“I Will” is a nice homage to boy bands like Boyz II Men and New Edition, but Usher’s lack of charisma prevents it from going anywhere new.

“Appetite,” Here I Stand (2008)

When the average married person wakes up in the middle of the night, they might want some chips or a sandwich from the kitchen. Usher is waking up with — what else? — other women on the brain. His storytelling does the heavy lifting: wracking over his thoughts of finding love and fulfillment elsewhere, starting up a conversation with another woman at the airport that could turn into something more. The rap verse near the song’s end feels tacked on, but it’s easy to get swept up in his thoughts.

“Somebody To Love” (feat. Justin Beiber), Versus (2010)

A stadium jam that coasts on Usher and his one-time protege Justin Bieber’s saccharine lyrics and straight into “this song being played in the Shop Rite bathroom feels like it’s directed at me.”

“Stranger,” Versus (2010)

Going from sneaky link to something more can be harrowing, even if you’re Usher. “Stranger” tries to get at that nebulous middle ground in the glossy way you’d expect from the Raymond v. Raymond/Versus era. While it doesn’t set anything on fire, it’s a different enough spin on a well-worn formula.

“Hottest Thing,” 8701 (2001)

A familiar scene: Usher has scoped out somebody in the club and is ready to make a move. Pretty basic start, but the jittery hook, producer Mike City’s buttery dancing drums and pianos, and the “whoa!” that stops the song short in the middle of the second verse push “Hottest Thing” past the clichés. Maybe love does exist in this club.

“Pop Ya Collar,” 8701/All About U (leak) (2000)

Poor “Pop Ya Collar.” If this and several other Usher songs hadn’t been leaked, he wouldn’t have had to delay his third studio album by almost a year. (The song was eventually released on international versions of the record.) Despite its charms — infectious hook, the tinny bells that clash against the drums on the beat — it’s easy to see why this one got lost in the shuffle. “Collar” is fun but it doesn’t have the sizzle of “Good Ol’ Ghetto” or the rapturous highs of a “U Don’t Have to Call.”

“Prayer For You Interlude,” Here I Stand (2008)

A light and joyful ode to his then-2-month-old son, Usher Raymond V, “Prayer for You Interlude” is sweet enough to make you wish it was longer. Bonus points for asking his son “I really sound that bad?” after he started crying into the mic.

“California” (feat. Tyga), (2020)

Another collab where it sounds like Usher was handed a beat meant for the rapper and it just so happened to become his song instead. Hardly a feat, but these two channel enough of a “drop-top flying down the highway on a summer night” vibe for it to squeak past unchecked.

“Intro,” Confessions (2004)

Shakers and guitars set the perfect mood for an album all about fessing up to various infidelities. It’s contemplative, vibey, and short enough to lull you into a false sense of security before walking into the worst argument of your life.

“This Ain’t ***,” Here I Stand (2008)

What’s the difference between having *** and making love? Usher doesn’t specify with words, but on “This Ain’t ***,” the funky slap of Jazze Pha and Tricky Stewart’s production and Usher’s garish declarations (“We ain’t having ***, we’re just making moments / That will outlast the world”) speak volumes. It can feel a bit choose-your-own adventure, but the atmosphere is always fun.

“Gift Shop” (feat. Gunna), A (2018)

“Gift Shop” sounds like it would’ve fit on Drip or Drown 2. Usher rarely sounds convincing when he’s in bare flexing mode, and he gets less chances because he’s barely on this song. The few parts where he does show up see him falling back into his Atlanta rap bag, and he’s got the energy to make the high-pitched cadences work. But, once again, I wish this was just a Gunna solo track.

“Stronger,” Hard II Love (2016)

Similar to “Crash,” “Stronger” is a Hard II Love cut that dances on the edge of poppier stuff from Usher’s past. It sounds like an overblown choir and needlessly theatrical percussion will swoop in on the hook at any minute. But J. Hill and Tane Runo keep things subdued and classy, approximating something closer to a Mumford & Sons song produced by Noah “40” Shebib, yet not nearly as insufferable as that sounds. The rumbling beat brings gravitas to Usher’s struggle to open up to a lover.

“Without U (Interlude,)” 8701 (2001)

As the interludes stack up, it’s hard not to wish they were longer. The yen in Usher’s voice is palpable and ascends the silky piano lines like stairs. A nice lead-in to one of the best songs on 8701 (“Can U Help Me”), but that’s all.

“Final Goodbye,” Usher (1994)

If Usher had his own TV show then this would be the end credits theme.

“You Decide,” A (2018)

The idea of Usher giving his partner a play-by-play of the best moments of their relationship is funny, but “You Decide” turns it into a jaunty, danceable R&B tune. Usher’s been slightly more convincing elsewhere, but Zaytoven’s flutes and drums amplify this to the status of good ol’ fashioned R&B begging. Also, it’s one of only a handful of times where Usher the storyteller puts the power to end the relationship in his partner’s hands.

“Hard II Love,” Hard II Love (2016)

Is it possible for a song that starts with the lyrics “Got a crush on a new toy” to end with you feeling sympathetic for the singer? This title track comes closer than anyone could’ve imagined: “I know I’m hard to love, hard to love, hard to love … It’s like you’re gambling, falling for me.” Ya think?

“2nd Round,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

The audio version of an “I’m in your city” text message that turns into an experience Usher wants to run back. About as **** and fast as you’d imagine.

“Euphoria,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

“Euphoria” has similar problems to the other EDM/Euro-pop songs Usher’s made — anonymous lyrics, an overinflated sense of importance — but the beat, courtesy of Swedish EDM mainstays Swedish House Mafia, makes it work.

“Lemme See” (feat. Rick Ross), Looking 4 Myself (2012)

Falsetto is one of Usher’s secret weapons. On “Lemme See,” he hits the mid-high level of his register while ******* after a new paramour. Guest Rick Ross’s charisma is overwhelming (who else can rap about Cartier frames and Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in the same song?), but Usher holds his own and keeps the fire burning.

“She Came II Give It II U” (feat. Nicki Minaj), (2014)

Pharrell really knows how to get Usher moving. The bass, simmering guitar, and horns coax his more playful side out, as he narrates a story of a man who’s antsy, impatient, and ignorant enough to lose out on his dream girl at the club. As the song swings from pursuing a woman to missed opportunities to pass her the blunt, you start to wonder if the subject of Usher’s story will ever get the message. And then guest Nicki Minaj destabilizes the whole song with innuendo about baseball gloves, Japanese yen, and the man only lasting “six seconds, like a Vine.” Not as memorable as their first collab, “Lil Freak,” but a *****, goofy time all the same.

“Downtime,” Hard II Love (2016)

On the tender “Downtime,” Usher’s voice drops a few octaves while talking game to a woman he’s sneaking around with. By the second verse, he catches you off guard with a near-whispered flow that has him sounding like J. Cole on 6LACK’s “Pretty Little Fears.”

“Risk It All” (feat. H.E.R.), Coming Home (2024) and The Color Purple soundtrack (2023)

“Risk It All” pulls more raw emotion than you might expect from a soundtrack song, and Usher doesn’t often lean into a full-on piano ballad, making this one of the most stripped-back songs in his discography. Yet the approach is a double-edged sword. Usher and H.E.R. complement each other well, but there’s a lot of dead space.

“I’ll Make It Right,” Usher (1994)

The intro track to Usher’s self-titled debut feels like it’s working to keep you off-balance. Diddy’s beat warbles like sheet metal slammed against the ground while Usher sings about maintaining a relationship that’s beginning to fall apart. Like most songs on Usher, he doesn’t have enough experience to fully sell the story.

“Boyfriend” (2023)

Easily the peppiest song about being stalked by a lover’s boyfriend ever recorded.

“Before I Met You,” Here I Stand (2008)

In another universe, this replaced John Legend’s “All of Me” at weddings.

“Making Love (Into The Night),” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

The closing track for the non-deluxe version of Raymond v. Raymond is also its steamiest. A digital update on what used to be called “satin-sheet music,” complete with velvety harmonies, falsetto, whispered sweet nothings, and lyrics that are just vague enough for you to fill in the blanks.

“Say The Words,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

A grown man looking back on the stories that powered his self-titled album, this bonus track mixes wavy xylophone and synths with simple romantic pleasures. Synthetic funk with a touch of psych rock is a decent look on Usher.

“You Took My Heart,” Usher (1994)

One of the purest distillations of Usher’s talents. The way his vocal tone collides with the heavy keyboards and drums would be ear-catching even if he was singing gibberish.

“Twisted” (feat. Pharrell), Looking 4 Myself (2012)

Any Usher song dedicated to a good ***** is worth at least a cursory listen. Come for the romantic cat-and-mouse game, stay for the Pharrell production that contains the bones of what would eventually become his “Come Get It Bae” from 2014.

“Dive,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

The type of song you don’t dwell on until you hear Usher saying “It’s raining inside your bed / No parts are dry / Loving makes you so wet / Your legs, your thighs” while you’re on the checkout line at Burlington Coat Factory.

“Something Special,” Here I Stand (2008)

A slanted guitar jam that Usher describes as “for the lovers.” Whether buying his partner Gucci or letting her sleep in his bed, they’re intertwined. A pleasant and inoffensive couples dance track.

“I’ll Show You Love,” Usher (1994)

Sometimes, a pitched-down James Brown sample and some thudding drums are all you need to sell a strained story of teenage love.

“Okay,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

This feels like a part one (the foreplay?) to “Making Love (Into the Night).” But it could have benefited from a smoother transition between the two.

“Pro Lover,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

Hard-hitting R&B in the Confessions mold, as Usher lets his vocal range shine in pursuit of the latest apple of his eye. “Pro Lover” has a more effortless sway than most songs on Raymond v. Raymond, approaching the feeling of dub or reggae, and the way his voice slinks in between the bass licks, guitar plinks, and DJ scratches feels as inviting as your favorite pillow.

“SexBeat” (feat. Lil’ Jon & Ludacris), (2020)

Look, Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris were never going to top the success or songwriting alchemy of “Yeah!” For “SexBeat,” the trio’s first time working together in over 15 years, it doesn’t sound like they were even trying to. But all three are in fine form (Ludacris’s verse, in particular, sounds like it was airlifted from 2004), putting a modern, slightly more intimate spin on their chemistry.

“Hot Tottie” (feat. Jay-Z), Versus (2010)

“Hot Tottie” is the second, and least exciting, of two Jay-Z collabs in Usher’s discography. Usher is on the prowl for someone to spend the night with, and Hov flexes from the top of the rap throne over a beat that kinda sounds like “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” has been turned inside out. They each sound decent but aren’t in sync with each other.

“Numb,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

An electronic knocker carried by a gargantuan drop, once again courtesy of Swedish House Mafia. (One thing Usher’s EDM era has taught me is that I probably would’ve really enjoyed an Usher collab with Avicii.)

“Bedtime,” My Way (1997)

The clearest evolution of Usher’s style. This Babyface-written and -produced track would’ve sounded decent in the hands of Boyz II Men or Jodeci. But Usher makes it his own by shrinking big feelings of love down to the enveloping bliss of bedtime, proving that he’s ready to come out from under his idols’ shadow.

“Lingerie,” Versus (2010)

Sounds exactly like an Usher-led ode to lingerie would sound (synthetic instruments, clanging bells, a hint of Michael Jackson in those vocals).

“Bad Habits” (2020)

If this many songs about how hard you are to love came from anyone other than Usher, he’d have been carried out of here on his back by now.

“If I Want To,” 8701 (2001)

By 2001, Usher was on the verge of superstardom and adulthood, growing into the confidently messy cultural icon he would become. He’s feeling himself here, to the point where he tells the object of his affection he can have her “and all her little girlfriends, too.” Toxic before “toxic” was a thing.

“Slow Love,” Usher (1994)

Everything about “Slow Love” is, truly, slow. Usher’s approach to courting, the shuffling velour beat, the low simmer of his voice as he gets more and more determined. I imagine this is what played in Quincy’s head when he first fell in love with Monica in Love & Basketball’s.

“Good Ol’ Ghetto,” 8701 (2001)

Nostalgia had a hold on Usher at 23. Here he’s channeling the energy of songs like “Slow Love” while referencing older tracks like “Nice & Slow.” You can practically smell the barbecue where he reunites with an old fling. Nothing major, but a good trip down memory lane.

“I Care 4 U,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

Usher claims this song was inspired by one of his earliest relationships, where the words “I love you” felt big and scary compared to “I care for you.” There’s an argument brewing between the couple at the center of it while the dark synths, light violins, and Usher’s vocal harmonies represent that love is still at the center of it all. A good example of how to bring the outsized sound of the album to a more intimate space and still keep the grandeur.

“FWM,” Hard II Love (2016)

As many times as I’ve heard this song, I can’t wrap my head around how it sounds both nervy and hopeful. Usher is once again asking for forgiveness for … who knows what, but his usual questions (“Tell me what ***** is perfect / What ***** is right?”) are accented by the earworm of a hook: “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me / **** wit’ me, **** wit’ me, **** wit’ me,” he says, matching the staccato of the song’s keyboards and echoing drums.

“She Ain’t Tell Ya,” A (2018)

Revisiting the “every story has multiple sides” angle from the beginning of Raymond v. Raymond, Usher uses “She Ain’t Tell Ya” to spin a tale of all the different things he’s done for his lady as she’s on her way out the door. Lording things like good ***, affection, and paying for plastic surgery and her mother’s house over her head is manipulative as all ****, but Zaytoven’s pianos and jumpy tempo make the complications of love and partnership sound like a Burberry picnic

“Foolin’ Around,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

“It’s killing me, girl, that you have to live with this / Live with the lies I tell, live with the pain you feel.” Do you understand how smooth you have to be to sing this stuff without getting slapped?

“Make U A Believer,” Hard II Love (2016)

Usher inhabits Future’s energy so well here I had to double check whether or not the rapper had a songwriting credit. This isn’t the most outlandish Usher has been, but he’s fully into pushing buttons here, bigging up his *** game and bragging about how many other women he could have.

“Intro-lude 8701,” 8701 (2001)

This instrumental is nice enough, but the way the numbers “8701” roll off of Usher’s tongue is the perfect way to start an album as libidinous as this.

“I Don’t Mind” (feat. Juicy J), (2014)

I know half of you reading this have already started humming the hook in your head. This song never wound up on a proper project (it was originally supposed to be the lead single for Hard II Love), but its simple pleasures — from Usher showing support to a stripper he’s got his eye on to the handclap and synth plinks that make up the beat to Juicy J’s unhinged feature verse — will glue it to your eardrums

“Simple Things,” Confessions (2004)

On “Simple Things,” Usher takes two extremely rare stances: a second-person narration role (addressing, I assume, the listener) and pumping the breaks on his hedonistic lifestyle to enjoy the simple things. The casual stroll of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s beat makes it easy to get lost within the gilded walls of the song, but if you listen closely, he’s dropping gems that can last a lifetime.

“Whispers,” Usher (1994)

I’m sure Usher had never been near a satin-lined bed in his life at 15, but it’s entertaining to hear him make music that suggested he had.

“Do It To Me,” Confessions (2004)

A more polished version of a song like “Bedtime” or “Can U Help Me,” complete with the kind of shuffle that would make a group like the Temptations smile.

“How Do I Say,” 8701 (2001)

8701 is largely an album of uptempo party jams, but the handful of songs that dim the lights do so with vigor and color. On one of his most intimate songs of the era, “How Do I Say,” brings to mind rose petals and expensive musk at a motel room in the cut while Usher speaks basic Spanish to seal the deal.

“Follow Me,” Confessions (2004)

If Superfly had been remade in 2004, the soundtrack would sound something like this.

“Don’t Waste My Time” (feat. Ella Mai), (2019)

Usher doesn’t have as many duets as you’d expect, but a song like “Don’t Waste My Time” is inviting. He and British vocalist Ella Mai approach their relationship with few strings attached, creating a cute groove over an interpolation of Jackson 5’s “Show You The Way to Go.”

“Slow Jam” (feat. Monica), My Way (1997)

Another stab at an older style of R&B love song, as Monica and Usher sell the love-at-first-sight sizzle.

“U-Turn,” 8701 (2001)

You couldn’t release an album in the 2000s without a song that had a catchy dance to go with it. Usher’s addition to the canon was called the U-Turn, and it was inspired as much by Michael Jackson’s moonwalk as it was by Toolie Trips’s the ***. How do you do it? Couldn’t be simpler: “Put your hands up, bend your knees / Bounce around in a circle, gettin’ down with me.” The U-Turn didn’t catch on, but the song that inspired it is still a snappy good time.

“That’s What It’s Made For,” Confessions (2004)

I’m surprised it took Usher this long to get to a musical ode to the *****.

“Papers,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

Raymond v. Raymond was released around the time Usher was divorcing his wife Tameka Foster. What’s wild is that the album’s lead single, “Papers,” which just so happens to revolve around a deteriorating relationship that ends in divorce, was written by Sean Garrett before he had any idea Usher was having trouble at home. It’s no surprise he put his all into singing about fighting “like dogs at six in the morning” and dodging his pastor after his wife goes to complain. We don’t get to see Usher on the ropes like this often, and though it doesn’t reach the titillating levels of “Confessions Part II,” the song’s personal lore makes it one of the most disarming in his whole discography.

“What’s A Man To Do,Here I Stand (2008)

“What’s a Man To Do?” is a less formal take on the splintering love present on “Papers.” Instead of arguments and changes pushing him to the brink of divorce, he’s stuck between two women (“I can’t hide my feelings / Especially when the world can see / that my heart is in two different places”). It’s another wrinkle to the “take me as I am” approach of older songs, but there’s a sense of pleading and want for genuine reconciliation that carries it above the rest.

“Caught Up,” Confessions (2004)

For once in his life, “Caught Up” sees the tables turned on Usher. He’s usually stunting on everyone he sees, but here he’s stuck on someone who turned him down. A thirsty-boy anthem, no more, no less.

“She Don’t Know” (feat. Ludacris)” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

When Usher and Ludacris get together, you know Ludacris is gonna come with the most ridiculously basic punch lines you’ve ever heard (“Can you smell what I’m cookin’, like The Rock say? / Smells like a feast and you lookin’ like the entrée”). The duo bring a lot of energy out of each other, even when they’re both going through the motions.

“Moving Mountains,” Here I Stand (2008)

On this spirited cut from Here I Stand, Usher’s partner has become distant. He isn’t usually the one trying to salvage a relationship and being in the right about it, but he’s clearly relishing it, pushing the boulder of their love up the mountain like a lovelorn Sisyphus.

“Sins of My Father,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

Usher didn’t grow up with his father in his life, and their relationship is something he doesn’t mention on record often. But “Sins of My Father” sees the singer grappling with his dad’s absence and how he hopes to break the curse. It’s bleak for an Usher song, but clearly a necessary step as he advances through the trials of fatherhood himself.

“U Remind Me,” 8701 (2001)

Yet another instance of Usher having to deal with a taste of his own medicine. “U Remind Me” revolves around a relationship with a woman who cheated on Usher, and his inability to not see his ex whenever he looks at his new lover. It sounds sweeter on the hook, and a bit silly when he drops the act and lays his feelings down plainly: “I know it’s so unfair to you / That I relate her ignorance to you,” he sings before continuing to sad boi his way through it. It would be more pathetic if the song wasn’t an absolute jam.

“Love You Gently,” Here I Stand (2008)

Tender Usher is in full effect, and he’s got enough foreplay, Al Green, and Sade to make you forget all of your troubles. Textbook definition of grown-folks R&B.

“Birthday,” A (2018)

A salute to birthday *** that I maintain is actually better than Jeremih’s “Birthday ***.”

“Confessions,” Confessions (2004)

The scene-setting before the bombshell of “Confessions Part II.” Usher reveals to his lady that not only has he been sneaking around, but he’s been doing it in L.A. with his ex-girlfriend. The stabbing piano, drums, and shakers accent his admissions of guilt and gaslighting (“It would be even worse if you heard this from somebody else”). The first “Confessions” is trifling enough, and a very effective song in spite of that, but it pales in comparison to its more overblown, dramatic cousin.

“There Goes My Baby,” Versus (2010)

We all know Usher has his share of cuffing-season songs, but few sound as assured as this one. The hook is a showcase for his gossamer falsetto, which he uses to simply look at his lover as she passes by, puts her heels on, and just exists. It’s the Usher version of a simp anthem, and the starry synths and drum blasts make it feel grown and **** without overblowing things.

“What Happened To U,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

For a brief moment, Usher is ready to push his creature comforts to the side for one special person. But he’s having a hard time finding her, and is pining for something outside of *** or status. Noah “40” Shebib’s cushiony beat matches the meditative tone of Usher’s unsung affection

“Bump,” Hard II Love (2016)

A person whose *** is so good, it’s got Usher changing up all of his habits. Producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart keep the beat low-key, even though Usher’s thoughts are anything but.

“Lil Freak” (feat. Nicki Minaj), Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

“Usher recruits Nicki Minaj to help him have a *********” sounds like an episode of Atlanta waiting to happen, but this song is pretty entertaining, too.

“Think Of You,” Usher (1994)

Hokey Kool Moe Dee sample aside, Usher grappling with complex emotions for a woman who left him for another man is affecting. One of a handful of songs on Usher that transcends its R&B and new jack swing cosplay and sounds true to teenage ennui.

“Lay You Down,” Versus (2010)

I wonder how often Usher has used that falsetto to get women in real life. Enough to say things like “I’ma touch you with my mind / Kiss you with my body.”

“Need U,” Hard II Love (2016)

Another infrequent appearance of bass in Usher’s voice, this time helping him rationalize how much he and his girl have each other under their respective spells.

“Lessons For The Lover,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

There’s something about Usher asking questions about toxic relationships that he probably already has the answers to that just makes for great songwriting. Shine on, you debonair crazy diamond.

“Rivals” (feat. Future), Hard II Love (2016)

It’s fun to see Future get into his R&B bag a year before he released the R&B-laced HNDRXX. The duo’s insecurities and love play off each other well; two lotharios being humbled by love.

“DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” (feat. Pitbull), Versus (2010)

Usher embraced the EDM craze of the early 2010s like no other, working hard to marry the party-hard nature of songs like “Yeah!” to a more internationally appealing audience. On“DJ,” they collide perfectly, creating a paean to love that’s becomes as inescapable as death and taxes.

“Love Was Here,” Usher (1994)

I don’t know who hurt Young Usher, but they birthed one **** of a torch song.

“Can U Handle It,” Confessions (2004)

After an entire album’s worth of defensiveness, it’s refreshing to hear Usher and his lady open up to each other about how to spice up the bedroom. “Can U Handle It” is the sexiest palette cleanser this side of Janet Jackson’s Damita Jo. 

“Here I Stand,” Here I Stand (2008)

As a larger-than-life celebrity, Usher doesn’t always reflect on how his jet-setting lifestyle can affect the people he loves. Using the title track from Here I Stand as a stately ballad to pledge fealty to a woman — it can be assumed it’s his then-wife, Tameka Foster — above all others makes it more of a statement piece than it already would’ve been. When he sings this song, the crowd disappears, the lights dim, and it’s just him and a piano, singing to the love of his life.

“Mars vs. Venus,” Raymond v. Raymond (2010)

Usher has envisioned lovers as a lot of things, but on “Mars vs. Venus,” he sees them as … the planets themselves? The gorgeous hook sounds like floating through the universe’s prettiest quasar with the love of your life.

“No Limit” (feat. Young ****), Hard II Love (2016)

The number of no-limit puns on the hook of this song are enough to make it a fun ride, but Usher keeping pace with Young **** at his most vocally unhinged this side of Barter 6 and Slime Season 3 is genuinely impressive.

“Can U Help Me,” 8701 (2001)

All that time he spent on ballads led Usher to “Can U Help Me?” A rare slow moment on his third studio album, his reflections over trying to give his lover more than just material things swell into a beautiful homage to the Black boy bands that raised him. “Life’s a prison when you’re in love for long / I need you to come back home” even has some Michael Jackson simplicity to it.

“My Way,” My Way (1997)

Somewhere around the creation of My Way, Usher understood he was about to have the world in his hands. There’s a sly menace to the way he sings “My Way,” with a grin as wide as his Chattanooga backyard. He knows girls will run back to hear him sing, dance, and be a stand-in for fantasies, and he’s more than willing to rub your face in it. “What I say goes!,” he belts near the end of the hook, a battle cry for a love war already won.

“Can U Get Wit It,” Usher (1994)

By 15, Usher already had yearning down to a science. The lead single from his first album moves and seethes with a simmering unresolved tension between Usher and his dream girl. “I don’t have much money / I can’t buy a diamond ring / I ain’t tryna be funny / It’s only a ****** thing” is some heavy words coming from a 15-year-old, but this is one of the handful of moments where he effortlessly sells the fantasy.

“Missin U,” Hard II Love (2016)

“Missin U” goes to a lot of places in four minutes. What starts as a ***** call over dark synths and clanking percussion gives way to a big-band swell that calls back to ’60s soul artists, with Usher just content to embrace and kiss his love.

“His Mistakes,” Here I Stand (2008)

“His Mistakes” sees Usher in love with a woman who’s putting harsh expectations on him stemming from a previous relationship — a mirror image to the paranoia rushing through him on “U Remind Me.”

“Trading Places,” Here I Stand (2008)

A classic battle of the sexes feels too cliché for even Usher to touch. But on “Trading Places,” he flips the script by swapping stereotypical male-female roles. All of a sudden, it’s his lady’s responsibility to take him out on a date, pay for dinner and a movie, and get on top during *** (he returns the favor by doing it all the next day). It’s still a bit binary — men bring the money and the *** drive, women bring house chores and Folger’s — but it’s fun Usher was willing to play around with gender roles at all.

“Love In This Club Pt. II” (feat. Beyonce & Lil Wayne), Here I Stand (2008)

Lil Wayne plays third wheel with a fun guest verse, but this is Usher and Bey’s show, a place for two of the genre’s biggest talents to let loose.

“Best Thing” (feat. Jay-Z), Here I Stand (2008)

On “Hot Tottie,” Usher and Jay-Z sounded like they wrote for two different songs. But they’re on the same page for “Best Thing.” It’s charming to hear Usher playing the straight man to Jay’s player who “couldn’t give a ****, so why would I give a finger?”

“Get In My Car” (feat. Bun B), Versus (2010)

Usher has had more substantive rap collaborations, but most don’t sound or feel as good as he and Bun B riding their way through “Get in My Car.” Here, Usher takes a special lady for a sneaky drive back to his hotel, while Bun B rips the backend of the song to shreds.

“Say What U Want,” A (2018)

It takes almost all of A for Usher and Zaytoven to finally gel. On “Say What U Want,” Usher makes sly attempts to win back a girlfriend and finds firm footing over the producer’s infectious piano melodies and galloping 808s.

“Seduction,” Confessions (2004)

Perfect honey-thick harmonies on the hook? A wavy guitar line? Handclaps that fluctuate like a waterbed? “Seduction” sounds exactly like it.

“GLU,” (2023)

The way Usher bends his falsetto around the production of this slow *** jam should be studied. For a minute, his vocals bring to mind the soul icons he loves, like Al Green and Smokey Robinson. But then he unleashes some barely covered innuendo (I’ll give you one guess what “GLU” is supposed to be …) and takes things to the next level.

“******,” Looking 4 Myself (2012)

To produce the pipes he displays on “GLU,” a song like “******” had to come first. By the time Usher has accepted defeat over a relationship (“Going nowhere fast / We’ve reached the ******”), he drops the most gorgeous falsetto of his career.

“Yeah!” (feat. Lil Jon & Ludacris), Confessions (2004)

A last-minute addition to Confessions — Arista Records had asked Usher for a more commercial single — no one involved knew just how humongous this song would become. Yet “Yeah!” somehow feels both overexposed and underrated. We know it so well it can be easy to take its charms for granted — like how Usher’s voice zips across the pre-chorus before landing on the exclamation point of “Get loooooow!,” or how gracefully every barked Lil Jon ad-lib lands next to Usher and Luda’s verses. There’s a reason it stayed at the top of the Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks after its 2004 release and is certified quadruple platinum. To this day, there isn’t a ***** club, birthday party, or bar mitzvah that isn’t made better by it.

“Crazy,” Usher (1994)

Of all the songs he recorded in his teenage years, “Crazy” is just soulful enough to stack up with his later releases. Usher’s voice floats down as if descended from R&B heaven, and he stacks buttery harmonies on top of blooming keyboards, building a sense of yearning potent enough to fuel a million games of “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not.” He sounds energetic but in control, like the whole world is a stage and she’s the only one lucky enough to see him for all he is.

“Twork It Out,” 8701 (2001)

There will never be a more elegant tribute to fat *****. Like most Usher songs, it revolves around ***. (“**** the club tonight,” he whispers, preferring to see his paramour move it while surrounded by rose petals.) But “Twork” lands in the sweet spot between intimate and overblown. Each guitar and bass strum is a reverberation of the heat and passion Usher and his lover feel.

“Take Your Hand,” Confessions (2004)

“Take Your Hand” is a song infatuated with movement. A sweaty, delirious heater that would sound just as good on a dance floor as it would in the bedroom.

“Bad Girl,” Confessions (2004)

Usher is in his steamy, seductive bag on “Bad Girl,” dropping acidic one-liners (“I keep a dollar worth of dimes”) while clutching a chalice of **** juice.

“Superstar,” Confessions (2004)

Of all Usher’s tributes to serious relationships, few have been as detailed and committed to staying the course. Here he takes elements of his life as a performer — the spotlights, big stage, bodyguards, and limousines — and puts his partner at the center of them, framing his entire world around her. Paired with peppy horns and echoing guitars, it sounds like a Hollywood dream come true.

“My Boo” (feat. Alicia Keys), Confessions (2004)

Confessions may spend much of its time airing out ***** laundry, but “My Boo” sees Usher and Alicia Keys reminiscing over early puppy-dog love. It doesn’t just work because they both have great voices, or because of the cherubic vocal sample chiming in over the bed of gilded synthetic instruments. No, “My Boo” shines because every time you hear it playing, you can easily imagine Usher and Alicia Keys staring into each other’s eyes between takes.

“One Day You’ll Be Mine,” My Way (1997)

A traditional ballad that samples the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark,” “One Day You’ll Be Mine” is one of Usher’s most underrated songs — a concise and potent portrait of him pursuing a woman he can’t have (she’s in a relationship and no matter how charming he is, all he can do is pine). It’s like he is trying to summon the eternal swagger of Ronald Isley to keep his composure. It’s also uncommon to hear Usher be this humbled in a song; he’s not usually the one being brushed off, and here he is admitting defeat. Though “One Day” wasn’t a hit record, it became a blueprint for the way Usher would put a magnifying glass on himself in attempts to smooth out his insecurities.

“Truth Hurts,” Confessions (2004)

“Truth Hurts” is ranked this high because of its audacity. Usher, in the thick of an album’s worth of fessing up to creeping around on his lady and getting other women pregnant, feels bold enough to turn the tables by accusing his partner of cheating but is still insecure enough to doubt himself. By the end of this tale, which simmers and skips like a lost cut from D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, he gives up the game by belting his own guilt at the top of his lungs: “I’ve been blaming you when I’m the one that’s doing wrong … My guilty conscience is the reason I wrote this song.” We should be expecting this reveal, but the rug has been pulled out and here we are, mad at ourselves for trusting him yet enthralled all the same.

“Love In This Club” (feat. Jeezy), Here I Stand (2008)

Believe it or not, there was a period of time when Usher was losing popularity with women. After he and Tameka Foster got married, his mack extraordinaire persona took a bit of a hit, and during the creation of 2008’s Here I Stand, producer Polow da Don gave Usher this beat specifically to help him get some steam back. “We made the record trying to grab the moment, grab the people and shock people,” Polow explained to MTV. “[The song] is not really all about having *** in the club, it’s about having that urge. It’s about meeting somebody for the first time, and you kinda wish nobody was there.” “Love in This Club,” a story that starts with an offer for a drink and evolves into a next-level connection accented with raining dollar bills, embodies all of that. The opening synth hits are enough to transport you to a place you’ve never even been before. It may not be Usher’s biggest hit, but it remains the platonic ideal for an Usher crossover single, one whose spark he would continue to chase for years.

“Nice & Slow,” My Way (1997)

Just seeing the title is enough to transport you there: 7 p.m. on the dot, in a drop-top, cruising the street, fantasizing about the night you’re about to have. “Nice & Slow” pushed the then-teenage Usher from being the kid seeking desire on his self-titled album to putting it into action. It’s crisp and neatly tailored as the blue-and-white color palette in its music video — until it isn’t. “Now teeeelllll me/Do you wanna get freeeeeeeeaky?,” he asks near the end, sounding halfway between confident and desperate for pleasure for the night. Usher’s first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 was a culmination of all the skills he’d been building to that point. His **** is more overt without being over the top, and his vocals unfurl like cozy socks straight out of the dryer.

“Burn,” Confessions (2004)

Usher on the ropes is a sight to see, but it’s not often he decides to throw in the towel. That’s only part of what makes this such a special track, though. “Burn” became the last word in soulful sad-boi anthems before the term “sad boi” was even a thing. Not only did its honesty and somber melodies help inspire a new era of singers, its Jake Nava-directed music video was parodied countless times. (The visual language translated perfectly to the animated series The Boondocks, where character Tom Dubois, fearing that his wife is cheating on him with Usher, busts out his own rendition of the song while dancing in the middle of a raining street in his pajamas.) Since then, every time a relationship fizzles out, trust that this song is being played by both parties. Usher’s presence was so outsized in 2004 that “Burn” topped the Hot 100 for eight nonconsecutive weeks, dethroning one of his own songs from the same album (“Yeah!”) in the process. He wasn’t just on top of the world, he was installing a new roof.

“Confessions Pt. 2,” Confessions (2004)

“Watch this,” Usher whispers coyly as he gets ready to completely upend his relationship. After privately admitting on “Part 1” that he was sneaking around with another girl, he spends the first two minutes of “Part II” getting ready to tell his partner even more news. He can’t even figure out how he wants to tell her, but eventually the truth slips out: Not only was he cheating, he’s expecting a child with someone else. Him asking for another chance is the acidic cherry on top.

There’s no way to accurately describe the amount of gossip this track kicked up when it was released back in 2004. It would take a decade before listeners would learn it wasn’t even Usher’s story to begin with. Either way, the tea was scalding, which had as much to do with the lyrics as it did Usher’s roller coaster of a performance and Dupri and ***’s way of building suspense. “Confessions Part II” put all of Usher’s most celebrated skills and ain’t-**** tendencies in a blender and served them with enough intrigue for an entire season’s worth of reality television. No surprise it’s the song that turned Confessions into a smash.

“U Got It Bad,” 8701 (2001)

Usher has songs about being in love, pursuing love, and falling out of love, but only a few that directly coach people through love. On “U Got It Bad,” love has already fallen on its head, as Usher takes on a second-person perspective to explain the telltale signs. The implied function — “I’ve been here before” — isn’t far from the truth, either: The track was inspired by a studio session between Usher, Dupri, and *** where Usher couldn’t get a specific woman off of his mind. Thoughts of her cascade through his head like the slinky keys and drums descending on the hook. For a star who was made to look like he had it all by his early 20s, recording “U Got It Bad” brought him just close enough to Earth to put life and love into perspective.

“Throwback” (feat. Jadakiss), Confessions (2004)

For Usher, love is a never-ending pursuit, even when he’s settled into it. But he rarely shows he’s been wounded by rejection. Sure, there are plenty of instances in which he’s been slighted, but he usually tries to play it off as just another bruise hidden behind some loverboy bravado. On “Throwback,” he tosses all of that to the side for some good ol’ fashioned simping. He’s never sounded more love-*****, more wounded, more betrayed by his own emotions, than when he calls out for his faceless lover on the hook. “The love of my life / But I wasn’t lovin’ you right,” he says, trying to keep himself together over Just Blaze’s grand drums and a gorgeous sample of Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me.” Each vocal run hits like a teardrop, every yelp a sniffle. Even Jadakiss finds it in himself to get tender.

“You Make Me Wanna…,” My Way (1997)

“You Make Me Wanna …” is a ’90s rom-com: boy meets girl, boy’s best friend (who also happens to be a girl) gives advice about girl, boy falls in love with best friend. The song’s DNA — both its storyline and Jermaine Dupri’s sultry piano and drum shuffle — can also be found in just about every R&B and rap love track that followed it. Here, Usher’s approach to emotion feels as light and sweet as brown sugar crumbles (“Think about a ring and all the things that come along with”). It also marked the beginning of a transition for Usher, from the pining sweet nothings of boyhood to the actionable desire of manhood, which he was able to sell without feeling cloying or, worse, manipulative. By embracing the complications of young love and moving past wholesome descriptions, “You Make Me Wanna …” became the ultimate star-making moment for the then- 18-year-old singer, a time where he could finally push the envelope without tearing it apart.

“U Don’t Have To Call,” 8701 (2001)

The first version of 8701 (originally titled All About U) leaked, forcing a delayed release and leading Usher to record new songs, including this sprightly, Neptunes-produced track. Chad Hugo and Pharrell’s twangy synths and shoulder-popping drums were originally meant for Michael Jackson’s final studio album, but when Jackson rejected them, they found their way to Usher, who used them to tell a rare (for him) story about a man ready to move on from a relationship where he doesn’t feel valued. Twenty-three years later, it stands as his most energetic vocal performance. It also set the template for two decades of dancefloor heaters.

“U Don’t Have to Call” is the sonic equivalent of a second wind during a night out, of finding your groove after a fall and holding onto it for good. Usher sounds so ecstatic about the possibility of getting himself back out there you can practically hear his feet clacking. (Though the song somehow never received a music video, it’s easy enough to imagine one: Usher, getting the boxy early-aughts equivalent of a FaceTime call from JD, heads to the club for a rebound on his own terms. Before long, he’s leading a dance line.)

The most deceptive thing about “U Don’t Have To Call” is that it isn’t a grand concept record like “Confessions Part II” or “Burn,” nor is it a tenderhearted ballad in the vein of “Nice & Slow” or a misty-eyed reminiscence like “Throwback.” It doesn’t aspire to be anything more than exactly what it is on the surface: a note-perfect party record for players, movers, and shakers of any persuasion to toss their inhibitions to the world and big themselves up on the dance floor.


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