Usher's 'Confessions' at 10: An Oral History with Lil Jon, Jermaine Dupri & More
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of "Confessions," an elite group of contributors who were involved in its creation share the story of making the album.
There aren’t many albums that make you feel as if your life is being recited back to you or as if you have your very own role in the storyline. Usher’s "Confessions" -- which was released 10 years ago on March 23, 2004 -- had me, a 19-year-old girl who had not yet had a boyfriend, believing that I had been cheated on or had been witness to a steamy and lingering act of infidelity.
I wasn't the only one who fell victim to the mystery nested in Usher’s fourth studio album. His girlfriend at the time, TLC's Rozanda 'Chilli' Thomas, took the album's single of the same title and cradled it as her own. A team of incredible writers and producers – Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jermaine Dupri, Bryan-Michael Cox, Dre & Vida and more – created a bed for Usher to not only lay in, but tussle in. "Confessions" started as secrets and struggles being shared among close friends, and ultimately became a collection of stories that set ablaze a man's fight with love.
"Confessions" introduced the becoming of a man. The singer-songwriter took his artistry to a higher level when showcasing his vocal prowess at its fullest potential through engaging, relatable storytelling; all at a time when R&B was dominating countless charts and hearts.
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Usher's "Confessions," an elite group of contributors who were involved in its creation and imperative to its plaitnum success share the story of making the album.
Andre "Dre" Harris (from Dre & Vidal): "Confessions" producer
Bryan-Michael Cox: "Confessions" producer and songwriter
Jermaine Dupri: "Confessions" producer and songwriter; founder of So So Def Records
Jimmy Jam: "Confessions" producer
Just Blaze: "Confessions" producer
Lil Jon: rapper and "Confessions" producer; performs on "Yeah!"
Terry Lewis: "Confessions" songwriter
Jermaine Dupri: "We have just come off 'U Got It Bad,' one of the biggest songs off '8701.' We were coming off the success of 'U Got It Bad' and 'U Remind Me.’ The conversation with L.A. [Reid, then the head of Arista Records] and Usher was about where we he was heading with this album. The topic of interest of people not being interested in Usher the person was the main subject matter at that point. The media wasn't completely sold on Usher and Usher’s interest inside and outside of the music. 'How do we make him interesting?' was the conversation. This was his prior getting married, getting divorced, having kids, prior than his canvas having many colors. It’s about showing interest in the person who was singing. When we write about a song, try to make it a little more interest through the story. 'U Make Me Wanna' was a story, a story of him leaving who he was with to be with someone else. It just wasn’t a song; It was a story. I took that concept and applied towards 'All Bad' (Confessions Part I). [Note: The song was first called 'All Bad.'] This is the song that defined the title of the album and the mind state of the rest of the record."
"'Confessions' was the best of A&R, the best of production, and the best executive [expertise]. It was made with a bunch of hits and feel good records. Usually those are the main ingredients to make a great album. It was the perfect selection of both. I think that if people wouldn’t have had the chance to hear feel good records, and it would have been hit after hit, then it wouldn’t have been the great album that it is or sold as much as it did. Five records on this that were on the radio, but there are also five records that weren’t on the radio that are fan favorites. I look at that as a blessing."
Terry Lewis: "While confessing is a great thing, I think that from a male perspective, men don’t want to hear you confess, because that just prompts issues with their relationships. What people want to hear in a confession is what you did to get yourself in trouble and the fun you had and how you went about that, 'cause those are the things people live every day. We went out and produced songs that portrayed that; what makes the picture a well-rounded story."
"Sometimes it gets overlooked what a great vocalist he is." - producer Jimmy Jam on Usher.
Jimmy Jam: "Terry and Usher have a whole other type of relationship. I think Terry is more of a father figure and mentor to Usher. They talk a lot even when we're not working on a project; about life. They had many conversations on personal things, and how much to reveal. My goal with Usher is to create music and production that show off how good of a singer he is. I think sometimes it gets overlooked what a great vocalist he is. He's one of the greatest vocalists. So since '8701,' we've tried to give Usher songs that' make you say, 'Oh Usher can sing!' Since he's a naturalist vocalist he can get away with singing and it sounding good but Usher won't let him get away with just singing good. He can't fool Terry and say, 'This is the best I can sing it.'"
The 'Confessions' Sessions
"YEAH!" (featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris)
Lil Jon: "We were in L.A. and went into the studio. Usher recorded his vocals and then I recorded mine. I knew we had somethin', but honestly never would have known the record was gonna blow up the way it did! As a producer and DJ, I just like makin' great music and hot records for the club."
"I'm still in awe of the fact that the record was as big as it is. I mean, it's still gettin' played every night in the clubs 10 years later. I just feel blessed to be a part of a record that made history."
"I'm still in awe of the fact that the record was as big as it is." - Lil Jon on Usher hit 'Yeah!,' on which he performs.
Jermaine Dupri: "We always talk about visuals while making a record. We talked about what he's going to look like and how. What's going to be his thing. What is he going to do that's going to make other people want to do it too. With ‘Yeah!" it was important that he made sure people knew he was a part of Atlanta. People didn't know. He's from Tennessee but lives in Atlanta. When he put the ‘A' hat on and did the dances that came with being from Atlanta, that was the perfect stamp for him that he's from Atlanta. ‘I'm a part of what you see when you see Atlanta.' So when you say Atlanta, you say Usher as well."
Terry Lewis: "This was his big movement song. It was accepted worldwide. In addition to that he had an album to back it up."
Just Blaze: "Me and Jon B collaborated on bunch of stuff to try to and put this record together. Usher kept going through different phases of what he wanted. First he wanted a dance record, then he wanted a hip-hop record and then he wanted a straight R&B record. Me and Jon had a long-standing friendship and work relationship so we kept trying all these different ideas. Me and Jon had just [been]working on his album, so we were still in that creative zone. Nothing really panned out. Nothing came about from the sessions. Nothing worked, basically. I had pretty much written it off."
"I originally made 'Throwback' for Dr. Dre, for his 'Detox' album. When he was working on it the first time. 'Detox' was supposed to be his final album, that's why the sample on the song is singing, 'You're going to want me back.' It was originally intended for Dr. Dre as an exit record; telling the music and fans 'you're going to want me back once I'm gone.' Once it became apparent that 'Detox' wasn't going to happen 'cause he was doing other things, we gave the record to Usher. It sat for six months and then we got a call from nowhere: 'We want to use that record. We have an idea for it. Can we all get in the studio now?' Myself, Rico Love and everyone else all got in the studio on the 11th-hour and put the record together in one day. We ended up making it into a song about lost love which worked out perfectly."
When me and Usher were working together it was something specific that he wanted from me. I think I was pushing more of an R&B/dance thing and he wanted more of a hip-hop thing. Creative differences, so nothing worked out. So at the 11th-hour I said, 'Okay, you want a rap record? This was for Dr. Dre. Check this out.' And, that was the one that ended up clicking."
"Originally Jay [Z] was supposed to get on it, but he was on vacation and wasn't going to make it back in time to meet the mastering deadline. We approached Jadakiss and he was finishing his album at the time. That's why the original version has no rapper."
"It's funny 'cause I remember when the album came out, Jadakiss randomly happened to be doing the morning show on [NY radio station] Hot 97. They played the record, he stopped it and said, 'I was supposed to be on this record but I couldn't 'cause I was finishing my album. I slept on it. I didn't know it was going to be that big [of] a deal.' It wasn't a priority for him. He had to finish his album. As soon as he realized it was going to be a big deal, he ran to the studio, jumped on it and sent us the files. That's why the version with Jadakiss was on the deluxe version of the album."
Bryan-Michael Cox: "That was one of Rico Love's first songs. He wrote it and gave it to J.Que and J.Que flipped it around. Before he was a singer, he was a rapper writing songs. Now he's touring the world cause he's got hit records."
"CONFESSIONS (PART I)"
Dupri: "When we write a song, we try to make it a little more interesting through a story. 'U Make Me Wanna' was a story, a story of him leaving who he was with to be with someone else. It just wasn't a song; It was a story. I took that concept and applied it towards 'All Bad' ['Confessions (Part I)']. It was first called ‘All Bad.' This is the song that defined the title of the album and the mind state of the rest of the record."
"I had flown to L.A.. On my way to the studio, I was writing. I was using the scenery of my ride in my lyrics. 'Every time I was in L.A., I was in Miami with my girlfriend.' Everything that was going on in my passing to get to the studio, that's what I was thinking and that's what I wrote down. I thought people would think that it he was talking about Chilli; It was written for suspicion and mystery. We finished it in L.A."
Cox: "The day we recorded it [‘Confessions Part I'] I went to go get your teeth pulled. I never got my teeth pulled [before]. I'm like, 'Okay. I'll make my dentist appointment at 10 o'clock in the morning and have the session at 5 [pm]. I didn't realize how much pain I was going to be. I got two teeth pulled. When the pain hit I was like, I got a session at 5. He's like, ‘You're not going to make that.' I said, ‘You have to give me the highest dose of Vicodin you could give.' We usually had a pattern on how we wrote songs; We took turns. But this time, we went line-for-line and I attribute that to the Vicodin. Right when Usher heard it, he got in the booth and sung it."
Dupri: "We came back and played it for L.A. [Reid] and people at Arista [Records]. Everyone went crazy. Usher said, ‘We need part two.'"
"CONFESSIONS (PART II)"
Dupri: "With ‘Part II,' I personally had just gone through that situation in my life, where I had a baby with somebody and I had a girlfriend and I had to tell ‘em. That was my personal story. It was like picking up a book of mine. Me and Usher were writing the song together, and I'd throw words at him. He'd say, 'Yeah, yeah. We got to say that!' At this point, he didn't have a child. He had no baby on the way so for him it was fun; We were creating a story that was almost like a movie. He didn't cheat or have a baby on the side."
Cox: "We're back in Atlanta and Jermaine suggests we record a part two and ‘make it into a soap opera.' After he tells me his story, I ask him, 'This is something you went through personally, huh?' He said, 'Yeah! This is my story and I've been looking for the right artist to tell this story.' That's when he came up with the title, 'Confessions.' We went back and forth on the hook idea and then came up with the verses. Usher came in, tweaked it a little to so he can relate to it, and 'Part II' was done."
Dupri: "I was lost as to if y'all would catch on to what was going on. You guys heard it from 'Part II' but hadn't heard 'Part I.' We thought that these songs were going to get overlooked because y'all connected without knowing what was going on. I never felt like 'Part II' was going to create the excitement that it did. It was written for suspicion and mystery so it can make you think: ‘Who is he talking about? How did this happen?' I felt like we hit all of those notes but I didn't think it was going to turn into what it did."
"She [Chilli] really made the power of that song come to life. She started believing that it was really her… She was doing interviews where she believed that the songs were written about her. That was the greatest part of my life at that particular point in time because that's when I really felt like I nailed the nail into the coffin. [When] you can write something well enough to make a person believe that you're talking about them and you're not… You have done an amazing job. What that does [is] it makes me know that I pulled off what we were trying to do. We were trying to get into the minds of people to make this relationship story interesting. We pulled it off."
Cox: "She validated the song. She went around and said, 'He did the unthinkable.' She never said what the unthinkable was but Confessions' was out so people assumed he had a baby. She must have thought that was going on or felt something cause she was on a media tirade. But like, ‘What are you thinking? Usher ain't got a baby.' It was wild. I remember hearing the interviews and thinking, 'Chilli is bugging.' She fueling the fire."
Dupri: "'Burn' was the first song that we did. It was my attempt to create more records that sounded like 'U Got It Bad.' 'Nice & Slow' was the beginning of ‘U Got It Bad.' ‘U Got It Bad' was the beginning of 'Let It Burn.' The title of it came from Usher saying that he was in a relationship and it felt like it was burning him on the inside. But, the only way to get it out of his system was to let it burn. We usually try to block that burning out or ignore it; That's how we end up lying. I had to figure out how it make sense of what he was saying. I took it further than what it was. When you have that feeling in your body you have let it burn through even though it hurts. Once it burns you up, it should be over. It's the feeling of ignoring what you know is over. It's the feeling of ignoring what you know is done. It's when there's something that's burning [and it] doesn't feel right. Many ask, 'Why am I still in this relationship? I know it's not right.' It's that type of feeling. You let it burn all the way through.'"
Cox: Jermaine said something about letting a feeling burn. I said, ‘That's a great song title.' He said, 'Then let's go write it.' We went back to the back and wrote it. We wrote the song in 15 minutes. In the hook, we referenced a little bit of Babyface with the falsetto part. Lyrically, 'Burn' was what I was doing to at the time. Usher came in and made it his. It a little bit more of my story. Going through the struggles of becoming successful, having a girlfriend, but the outside life is crazy. You're fighting not to get pulled in but your relationship is completely deteriorating. You have to let things go and if they come back, it's real."
Andre Harris (from Dre & Vidal): "For this album... We'd start out talking before we worked on anything, about life, love… We'd come up with concepts then start the music. The point was to make a real good R&B album and Usher was the perfect candidate. We started ‘Caught Up' by talking in the studio. He said, ‘I want to do something real uptempo.' After we had a 30-minute conversation we're like, ‘Let's do uptempo. Go!' The track was done in an hour. It came together fast. Ryan Good and Jason 'Pooh-Bear' [Floyd] started writing and we came up with the hook. I remember after we laid it down we went out that night [and] listened to it in [on the way to] the club. We came back the next day and Usher didn't like it. So, we went back to Philly without him cutting that record. We played it back and thought, 'This is a dope record.' At the time I had an artist named Glenn Lewis. I said, 'If Usher doesn't take this record I'm sending it to Glenn.' I remember telling Usher, ‘We got to cut this. We came back the second time and we played the record and invited girls to the studio. They partied and jammed to the record all night that he ended up saying, ‘Yeah we got to cut this.' When women are saying it's good… That's who we're making music for, for women. That album was meant to cater to women because it was real life situations. It also let men be vulnerable."
"SUPERSTAR (INTERLUDE)" / "SUPERSTAR"
Dre: "His brother actually produced the interlude. ‘Superstar' didn't sound like a normal ballad. It had cool sh*t to it. The record, also like the one Just Blaze did ('Throwback'), had different beats. They all felt good but [were] still eclectic. And still there was a consistency. I made ‘Superstar' in my apartment with Ryan Good and Pooh-Bear. It was the first song L.A. Reid heard and [made him] decide to get us in with Usher. [When] recording that song I knew it'd be for Usher; It sounds just like him."
"Faith Evans sings the background vocals on 'Superstar' but they forgot to credit her. No one knows its her. She sings on the bridge of 'Superstar.' She's like, 'Dang you forgot my record.' It wasn't my fault though. She laid extra vocals especially for him [Usher]."
Terry Lewis: "'Truth Hurts' is one of the first songs we recorded. We recorded that before we went back in and recorded the other things. When everyone turned in their songs, they heard ‘Truth Hurts' and said, ‘We have to send them back to you.' Usher then came back and we had a conversation of the overall concept. It needed some color. We then created ‘That's What's Made For,' ‘Simple Things,' ‘Seduction'… while none of them ended up being singles, they added color to the overall picture of what he was trying to get across in his confession. If you don't get in trouble, you have nothing to confess about. [Laughs] If you don't have a lesson that you learned in your reflection, you don't realize the importance of the simple things. We went in for a three week span or so, jammed and conceptualized what getting in trouble is all about."
Jam: "'Truth Hurts' ended up setting a tone. Terry, once again as being a really great lyricist, isn't writing anything that Usher hasn't said to him or an idea Usher hash't generated. But it's the conversations that they had that were intimate, That's where this ideas and inspirations come from. You're going to make records from your experiences because those make for the best records."
Jam: "We were at a studio at the Village. We were all sitting around and at that point in time I had gotten a new keyboard. We were messing around with different sounds, and there was this real nice rose, electric piano sound. I was playing chords. Avila [Bobby Ross Avila, producer, drums and keyboards on "Confessions"] was in the room, and he had a drum machine and started this real simple beat. Then Terry and Usher walked in and we soon had a room full of people saying, ‘This is real cool.'"
Jam: "'Bad Girl' initially came from another writing team. It was a song that Usher had and struggled with finishing it up. It was a thing where they were like, ‘Man this is a good idea but we can't quiet finish it and bring it home.' Terry and the Avila brothers worked their asses off to get that song where it is, from where it began which was a basically guitar lick idea to a fully realized song." ‘Bad Girl' was a song where you'd go to any club at any time and it was played as if it was a single. That happens cause of the strength of a really great album."
"THAT'S WHAT IT'S MADE FOR"
Lewis: "That's a scenario that happens. You make a mistake 'cause you forget. My grandma used to always tell me, ‘You think you're getting it but you're getting got. You're so worried what you're getting out of it that you forget what you're putting into it.' In this case, there is a baby possibly and you think, ‘What did I do?' Those are real situations: no cap, no cut."
"The production is very Usher but very original to Usher. I can't even tell you how many artists came back after that album and asked for records like that. I point to Usher when I think of a contemporary R&B ballad. Usher is [at] the altar of that whole style, the very rhythmic, almost rap type delivery of lyrics. Usher was the guy that started that."
Jam: "We were trying to create a sexy mood. We were also, at the same time, working on some stuff for Janet [Jackson]. I remember with that track, either Terry or Usher came in the room when we were working on it and were like, ‘Oh, that's ours.' I don't think we had anyone in mind when we produced it. I remember Terry saying, 'I had a concept for this. Oh, this is done.'"
"DO IT TO ME"
Dupri: "I personally believe that Jermaine Dupri can't make a lot of feel good records. Jermaine Dupri makes hit records or makes records that don't need to be heard. 'Do It To Me' was my attempt to make a feel good song for Usher; nasty but a feel good. It was the beginning of what you hear Usher doing now. It was the beginning of his falsetto. ‘Climax' reminds me of ‘Do It To Me,' ‘cause of his singing. The lyrics were incredible but the way he sang the record was us being experimental. It's one of my favorites but one I don't hear many talk about."
Cox: "People know me as a person who makes ballads. 'Do It Me' was completely inspired by appreciation for Prince. We were trying to do something that was sexy and slow, with those rare drum sounds. I was trying to channel Prince. The song came out better than we thought."
Dre: "It has a two-step lock to it. It was a fun record. He wanted to have fun on it so he sung it that way. We talked about being on the road. It was a record to let people know about the situations of artists' being on the road. Artists get vulnerable and miss people; they have normalities in their life. Ryan Good, Jason 'Pooh-Bear' and him wrote it. We recorded that in New York. After we had put in some time with him we knew the direction he was going in. That was a record that was done at the last minute after talking to him. The minute we played it for him he said, 'That's perfect. That's my life.'"
'Confessions' Bonus Tracks
"CONFESSIONS (PART II) Remix" (featuring Shyne, Usher and Twista)
Dupri: "I approach my remixes with the intention of making them harder and much more bounce-able than the original. I already had the template of how to make it crazier, and different than ‘All Bad.' I created something that you didn't hear till later. In my mind, I was piecing the two songs together. I believe ‘Confessions Part II' could have been the remix if we had made it as a song to just make."
"It was a conversation with Mark Pitts to get Shyne. We thought it'd be cool to get him from jail. Me and Usher talked about Kanye [West] ‘cause it was the beginning of Kanye being on R&B records. He was also on tour with Usher so it made perfect sense. Twista was our first choice ‘cause of how he was going to rock it."
Cox: "Jermaine came up with an idea and then he'd sing Usher the melody. He is one of the fastest writers I know. He can internalize an idea and 15-20 minutes later it's a whole song. The label didn't like that record. We were confused. Jive took over the project and we went to go meet with Peter Diaz was like, ‘We're going to put this song on the re-issue.' I was like, ‘You have no idea what that's going to do with this album. The album is already huge but it's going to be Mona Lisa, it's going to be crazy.' The label made a mistake of not putting it out on the album, but it got out and it was also the start of the re-issue."
Lewis: "You see someone that's sexy and cool and it's all wonderful. She's trying to get you just as much as you're trying to get her. In this particular case we painted a person who was more the aggressor than not. You think that you got to get her; send her a note and a drink. But she sends him a drink and says let's hang out later and do whatever. That was it; That's how you get in trouble."