The beauty of the internet age is being able to digitally archive and disseminate bits of music history, and quell the revisionism that seeks to efface progenitors in place of buzzier, far less talented impersonators. Coming up before the social media blitz, the Texas-born, Tennessee-raised singer Usher Raymond was synonymous with the annals of contemporary RnB and soul music; his gospel-honed voice delivering odes to seduction, romance, rapture, and heartache, across three successive decades. The every-man romantic optimist came to the fore on breakthrough ‘My Way’ and multi-platinum hit parade ‘8701’, but it was the bruised, interior sprawl of opus ‘Confessions’ that made him an international crossover success story.
To commemorate Usher’s 45th birthday, the success of his Paris and Vegas residencies, and the recent announcement of a headline performance at next year’s Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show, CLASH have compiled a retrospective list of Usher’s era-defining songs and deep cuts. This listicle spans eras but isn’t exhaustive, each submission is a lead Usher number; an argument could be made for the inclusion of his featured performances, like on Diddy’s ‘I Need A Girl Part 1’, or his understated interplay with Yuna on her finger-picked, easy-listening gem ‘Crush’.
With the ‘Ushenaissance’ in full swing, here are twenty tracks charting Usher’s transition from baby-faced serenader to a seasoned showman.
Can I Get With It?
On the first single from his 1994 self-titled debut, a teen dream, fresh-faced Usher gyrated onto the scene with a syncopated urban groove. Produced by DeVanté Swing of Jodeci, ‘Can U Get With It’ teased the amorous leading man that would soon have masses of women swooning and swaying to his tunes. Not quite at the height of his vocal reach and range, a leaner, more restrained performance aided the oozing, gradually-building feel of a marathon song. Shahzaib Hussain
You Make Me Wanna…
‘My Way’ was Usher’s formative album. Released in 1997 just a month before his 19th birthday, the album helped to shed the flirty boyish image of his debut self-titled LP and cemented his position as a sex symbol with the vocals to back it up. It was a coming-of-age album, and no track better demonstrates this than ‘You Make Me Wanna…’. Dubbed “the beginning of toxic R&B for me” by Usher himself, lyrics about falling for your best friend while in a relationship would set the stage for a career of storytelling through classic R&B. Sabrina Soormally
Nice & Slow
This enduring anthem does what’s described on the tin. ‘Nice & Slow’, one of the standout tracks from the Atlanta artist’s sophomore album ‘My Way’, boasted one of the most infamous intro lines in music history: any true fan can recite the “7-o’clock…” bar. Carrying the hallmarks of a classic RnB ballad, Usher laid down smooth, sultry vocals, showcasing the strength of the genre in its truest form, whilst also serving as a prelude to the Lothario that would define ‘Confessions’. Shanté Collier-McDermott
There’s a lightness of touch Usher employed in his early work, particularly on his mid-tempos. The title track from second album, ‘My Way’ was elevated by three things: the percolating, slow crackle production courtesy of Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal, a vocal delivery flitting between a soft croon and spoken-word, and the accompanying MTV-era visual featuring Usher commandeer a dance troupe in a carnivale dance-off against arch nemesis Tyrese Gibson. Seriously, they don’t do staged choreography in music videos like this anymore…Shahzaib Hussain
Pop Ya Collar
Destined for Usher’s ‘All About U’ album which was cancelled after a leak on Napster, ‘Pop Ya Collar’ was eventually added to an extended edition of ‘8701’. Written and produced with the legendary Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs of ‘No Scrubs’ fame, the song responded to doubters and skeptics in the aftermath of Usher’s commercial rise with ‘My Way’. A breezy, assertive dance track with confident lyrics like “Stop hating, wishing, waiting/ Anticipating for my year to fade” over a bouncy bass-heavy beat, ‘Pop Ya Collar’ is one of Usher’s most self-assured anthems. Sabrina Soormally
U Remind Me
On ‘8701’, Usher was able to perfect his persona as a player with a conscience. The lead single ‘U Remind Me’ is an almost love letter, where Usher tells a girl he can’t commit because he cares too much. Sung by anybody else the lyrics might come off as slick and insincere, but Usher demonstrates a genuine softness through smooth vocal runs that would earn him his first Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Released with one of the most iconic music videos of all time, Usher’s solo dance break in a rained-out alley still gets people going in 2023. Sabrina Soormally
If I Want To
‘8701’, the multi-platinum, critically-lauded third studio album from Usher took inspiration from multiple sonic kings who could swoon, such as Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. In interviews, Usher waxed poetic about the themes of the project being based around emotions of love and heartache. He even went as far to reveal that the ’87’ was to honour the year he sang in public for the first time at his church in Atlanta, and the ’01’ to the year of its release.
The Jermaine Dupri-produced ‘If I Want To’ was a braggadocios b-side from a player at the peak of his game. Despite claims he was aiming to shed the persona, Usher lays into the chorus with bold bars for a block of babes: “If I wanted, I could take you from your man (please believe it) / With my eyes closed, I could have you eating out the palm of my hand /And all your little girlfriends, too”. All the while Biggie raps adlibs in the back over his own sample of ‘Going Back To Cali’ that appears at 2:25. Tracy Kawalik
U Got It Bad
One of the most covered numbers in his discography, ‘U Got It Bad’ is a leading man lamentation for the ages. Every RnB songbook trope was ticked; the lonesome writhing in bed, the mirage-like dream sequences, the sing-along chorus, the vocal exhortations. That he opted for ‘U Got It Bad’ as the second single from third album ‘8701’, is testament to Usher’s intrepid instincts: together with lead single ‘U Remind Me’, Usher monopolised the Billboard charts of ’98. Shahzaib Hussain
U Don’t Have To Call
“Don’t Leave your girl round me, true player for real…”
Produced by The Neptunes, this party anthem was originally offered to Michael Jackson for his ‘Invincible’ album, before Usher made it his own. ‘U Don’t Have To Call’ set loose an emancipated Usher from the trope of a jilted lover. The Neptunes production is characteristically off-the-wall – spacey synth resonances swing like a pendulum from ear-to-ear, all synthesized together to provide Usher the room to vocally flex (do you hear those runs at the climax?) his way into the vast expanse of the night. Shahzaib Hussain
Whatever I Want
This rarity – featured on the UK bonus edition of ‘Confessions’ – emerged in the Rich Harrison-era of go-go-influenced RnB. Having co-produced Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’, Harrison utilised excerpts of saxophonist Preston Love’s ‘Chili Mac’, weaving brassy notes and addictive horn lines into a rare retro-stylized moment. ‘Whatever I Want’ placed Usher firmly in the legacy of leading men like Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass as performers of febrile funk. Shahzaib Hussain
Yeah! ft. Lil Jon, Ludacris
A monumental collaboration between Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris, ‘Yeah!’ is the defining emblem of noughties crunk, glitz, glamour and braggadocio. The lead single from ‘Confessions’, ‘Yeah!’ heralded a reintroduction for the RnB mainstay but he wouldn’t have anticipated how far and wide the track would travel. Taking over dancefloors worldwide, ‘Yeah!’ stayed atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a staggering twelve weeks. Since then, it’s become Usher’s first billion-streamed track on Spotify. Nostalgia rules. Ana Lamond
One for the lovelorn, one for the dreamers. Usher’s ‘Burn’ emerged as the ultimate break-up anthem, a chart-topper revelling in woozy vulnerability and sincere pining. The track holds the listener close, weaving between anecdotes, accountability and longing for a relationship to be salvaged. On all the noughties heartbreak soundtracks, ‘Burn’ solidified Usher as a truly global superstar. Ana Lamond
Confessions Pt. II
Usher’s magnum opus ‘Confessions’ was wrought with themes of heartbreak, betrayal, and remorse; the standout track ‘Confessions Pt. II’ presented the singer as exposed and fallible. Dogged with salacious rumours around his high-profile breakup with TLC’s Chilli, Usher utilised the media spectacle to drum up anticipation for what would turn out to be a flawless concept album. Usher draws the listener in, perfecting his theatrical delivery as he flows between pained, heartfelt vocals and conversational rap-like lines like ‘I was hand in hand in the Beverly Centre / Like man/ Not givin’ a damn who sees me’. An admission in musical form like no other. Sabrina Soormally
My Boo ft. Alicia Keys
A swooning duet, Usher invited fellow RnB icon Alicia Keys to sprinkle her magic across glossy hip-hop-tinged production, interplaying a tale of monogamous love and fidelity. Sampled by the many, ‘My Boo’ has seen itself transform across the last decade, re-imagined through the contrasting sounds of grime, pop and modern rap. Yet, the original remains the gold standard, a honey-sweet highlight in Usher’s underrated discography. Ana Lamond
Pairing slick and sexy acoustics with a commanding, earworm hook, Usher’s ‘Bad Girl’ has stood the test of time as one of Usher’s most addictive album cuts. An ode to ribald fantasy and infatuation, it’s a spotlight moment from the icon’s fourth studio album, ‘Confessions’. Stepping out in a swanky velvet suit for his 2004 ‘Truth Tour’, Usher was joined by none other than Beyoncé for a show-stopping performance of the track. Ana Lamond
Love In This Club, Pt. II ft. Beyoncé, Lil Wayne
“I’m the king, y’all know that / She the queen, came right back…”
On the sequel to the Young Jeezy-assisted original, Usher called on his peer and genre equivalent for a much-anticipated collaboration. With the tempo reined in, singing vocal curlicues around each other, Usher and Bey explored the shadowy side of drunken desire on a slick, smutty piece of programmed soul. Velvet rope, prying eyes, strobe lights – ‘Love In This Club, Pt II’ was a VIP remix. Fifteen years on, it’s high time the King and Queen gave us mortals another offering. Shahzaib Hussain
OMG ft. will.i.am
‘OMG’ was a clubbing anthem for many, but particularly for a former British university student that was a regular attender of Wednesday ‘throwback’ nights, like myself. Usher and will.i.am use their similarly smooth vocals and suggestive lyricism to create RnB magic on this song. Being more understated in production than a typical loud EDM club track is what gives the song its charm, and what better way to bring a club to life than by including crowd chants and catchy hooks? If a list of iconic club anthems from the 2010s were to be created, this would be close to the top. Amrit Virdi
Usher’s sixth studio album ‘Raymond v. Raymond’ tried too hard to mirror the semi-confessional tone of ‘Confessions’. There are however a few gems, notably the Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-produced opener ‘Monstar’, which teased a subversive experience that never truly materialised across the length of the album. The album’s crest, ‘Monstar’, captured the smokescreen of Usher’s life at the time as a recent divorcee through synthetic strings, a billowy bassline and an agile beat, mirroring Usher’s private and public identities as cogs in a malfunctioning machine. ‘Monstar’ presented Usher as a distortion; an anti-hero with good and bad sides as mutually perpetuating forces. Easily one of my favourite Usher tracks…ever. Shahzaib Hussain
It’s 2012 and RnB is being revitalised by two new artists’ recently released mixtapes. Frank Ocean and The Weeknd have been bringing fresh attention to the genre by blending influences from hip-hop, electronic music and indie rock into their work, and it’s near impossible to get into one of their shows. Usher joins the conversation with this immaculate Diplo-produced break-up song that the producer described on Twitter as “Radiohead quiet storm”. A masterclass in less being more, the restraint exercised on ‘Climax’ makes it one of Usher’s most vulnerable and emotive. Grant Brydon
From the first beat of his Prince-influenced, sexified, salsa-licked single ‘Good Kisser’, Usher makes it clear he’s down to get naughty. Topless, from behind a drum kit, sweat drips down his rippling body as he tears into the dance sequence for what was originally intended to be the lead video and single off his eighth studio album, ‘Hard II Love’. ‘Good Kisser’ was co-written and produced by a sextet of industry heavyweights such as Pop Wansel who was personally transfixed by the earworm. Not long after, Pop took it to Los Angeles to show RCA head honcho Mark Pitts who put it on to Usher. Usher made some lyrical changes over the original Foster Sylers 1974 funk record ‘Montego Bay’ but kept the bars pumped with racy innuendos about blowing his mind, leaving lipstick on his inner thigh and plenty of falsetto flex. Tracy Kawalik