You were an early self-starter. What motivates you today?
I still have some of that same feeling. I put my mind to something and was like, "This is what I’m going to do." And at the same time I have so much music and so many songs inside of me, and I’m still that same person. We just celebrated 14 years of Usher’s Confessions a couple days ago. That album has sold 15 million copies so far, and I was looking at that and saying, one of my idols, Quincy Jones, the first album he did with Michael Jackson did 25 million and then he did Thriller and that did 50 million. I don’t know if I’ll do it with Usher, it might be with someone else, but I believe I have the 50 million in me.
Let’s talk about “Confessions” and “Confessions Part II,” both recorded by Usher. What’s the story behind the song and the sequel?
When we did “Confessions,” we really had started with another song called “All Bad” and the “Confessions” part was in parentheses. In that song, I talked about how everything I’ve been doing is all bad. It’s a guy feeling bad about himself, about what he had been doing to the girl, so he just came out and told her. Once that version of “Confessions” was finished, Usher and myself was all like, “This is it. This is crazy.” And then Usher was like, “You can’t stop right there. There’s a part two to this story." And immediately, as soon as Usher said there’s a part two, my brain clicked and every word of “Confessions Part II” flew out of my mouth. Those lyrics for part two were something that I had actually gone through in my life; they were a reliving of a situation. I just had to put it in the right words that would make it fit for being Usher’s story.
Sounds like the second song came together pretty quickly.
It took about an hour, and the process was me saying the lyrics to him. I stopped writing lyrics down on paper after me and JAY-Z did “Money In the Bank.” They’re something I just hold in my mind. JAY-Z doesn’t write them down. He came to the studio and I saw him do that and I was like, “What the hell was this?” And he said, “I had my rap,” and he didn’t write one thing down in the studio. He said, “I wrote it, I just didn’t write it on paper.” I had never seen this done before. And then I started realizing, it might be easier than writing it down because we all memorize the songs that we really love. We memorize them tone for tone, without looking at a piece of paper.
So you don’t ever write lyrics down?
If you’re driving in the car, you don’t have the song lyrics in front of you but you hear a song on the radio and memorize it from that. One hundred percent, we all do that. I haven’t written anything down since I started working with JAY-Z.
You’ve always been a big collaborator in your songwriting. What’s the best part of writing and producing as part of a team?
Yesterday we celebrated Aretha Franklin’s birthday and I posted a clip on my Instagram of one of the songs [“Here We Go Again”] I did for her on the [A Rose Is Still a Rose] album. When I was watching the video and thinking about the songwriters -- I wrote the song with Trina Broussard and Trey Lorenz -- and since it sampled Luther Vandross it had three or four other people’s names on there as writers. It was a very collaborative project. We had a sound going for Aretha and we came together and started writing the song. That process is pretty much the same every time, unless get I get the urge to write the entire song, and then the songs first flow out of me completely and then I don’t give no one else the chance to write on the song. Other times I’ll come up with a concept -- I’m big on the hooks -- and I’ll start writing a hook and if I write the hook it automatically gives someone a chance to understand what they want to say in the verse. So if I’m collaborating, I understand my role and understand the slow process in the studio. The slow process in the studio is cooperative thinking, not thinking necessarily that the first thing that comes to your mind is the song.
Your hit “You Make Me Wanna,” another Usher hit, is another big collaboration.
For that song, I felt like Usher had just come off working with Devante [Swing] and Jodeci on his first album, and felt like I was trying to make a ballad type of mid-tempo record. I thought, this seems comfortable for this artist and I should try to make the coolest slow record we could possibly make. Once we had the guitar parts and the beat, [I thought] what was the coolest thing I could say in a slow song that would make it sound romantic, kind of, but at the same time, cool. This song just flew out of my mouth. It was coming out faster than I could get it on tape, just spewing out of my mouth. I thought, I need to hurry up and do this. Usually when I’m working with an artist like Usher, I just do the first hook and the first verse and won’t do more than that. Then if the artist doesn’t like the song, I haven’t wasted my time doing a whole song. Like with “Burn,” on the first verse, when Usher left the studio he told me he wanted to make a song about a burning feeling in him, the burning feeling you get when the relationship is about to be over. He gave me the concept of the song and left the studio, and within 30 minutes of him leaving I called him and sang the hook and the first verse and we stated cutting the song.
Who are you particularly excited about seeing at the Songwriters Hall of Fame gala?
I haven’t worked with Kool & the Gang but have sampled them. One of the interesting things about the Kool & the Gang situation, when I was first trying to get into the industry, before Kris Kross came out, I was 16 and they had the Jack the Rapper convention in Atlanta and I wanted to go but I couldn’t get in. So I went to the hotel to figure out how to get in and I managed to get in the lobby of the hotel and saw this other kid in the lobby and he looked cool and I went up to him and said, "What’s up?" He asked what I was doing, and I told him my story, that I was a producer, and we started talking and kicking it and he asked, "You got a badge?" He had a badge on, and I said, "Can you take me in and let me hang out with you?" He was like, "Yeah, come on." Long story short, it was [Robert] Kool’s [Bell] son, Hakeem Bell, who took me into Jack the Rapper. He and I became friends that day and we’ve been friends ever since.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2 issue of Billboard.