Featured Music: Wednesday, July 4, 2002
His Way

Usher isn’t just another R&B crooner — he’s the real deal.


Most contemporary R&B sucks — but Usher’s great. He became a superstar with his sophomore release, My Way, in 1997, so he’s a relative newbie, but ever since his eponymous 1994 debut he’s been hewing to old-school, Lutherian (as in Vandross) ideals of sweet vocal melodies and songs about specific things — not generic, I-gotta-getcha/leave-ya-girl billets-doux. Anyone who’s reading this and who remembers the initial thrill of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “After the Love is Gone,” with that ascending “Oh, whoah-ew-oh, whoah-ew-OH!” line, or who simply loves solid beats and unpredictable, earth-moving melodies and personal lyricism will like Usher. You just gotta get over the young man’s “teen-idol” label and give him a chance. (Chances are, if you’re 14 years old and have never heard of Earth, Wind, and Fire you’ve probably already given Usher an unprejudiced listen. But, then again, you’re probably not reading this paper, either.) What’s my attraction — nay, devotion — to Usher? It’s curious, but I’ll explain.

If you can’t already discern my ethnicity from the name atop this story, I’ll tell you: I’m a white guy. Raised in a blue-collar town up north, reared on Led Zeppelin and Rush, I’ve always been a rocker. What initially drew me to rockin’ songs like “When the Levee Breaks” or “La Villa Strangiato” was energy: technique harnessed in the service of a higher principle. As long as a song was “excellent,” it was OK by me.

As for Usher, how does an unabashed, twentysomething (at the time) white guy even become aware of some young, radio-friendly, African-American crooner? The quick answer is, it was my job to go listen — once. But the reason I kept listening is that Usher is “excellent” — and that’s no opinion, that’s fact.

“My Way” — my first exposure, incidentally, to Usher — was and remains one of the sexiest, man-empowering songs ever written. It’s about a guy (Usher) telling another guy (an antagonist) that the girl they’re both evidently sharing belongs truly, genuinely, undoubtedly — pesky circumstances notwithstanding — to him, Usher. “What I say goes,” he sings. “I’m in control-whoah-whoah-whoah.” The theme: If I wanted her for myself, I could have her — but my playa lifestyle is too valuable to waste on one honey. (And, no, I’ve never seen myself in Usher’s character in this song, but I can relate.) A complicated little lyrical tableau for a three-minute pop song, no?

But don’t misunderstand him: Of all the studly, quiet-stormin’ men out there, Usher is, judging by what he chooses to sing or help write, probably one of the most subdued lovers around. Almost any other R&B newjack typically falls on one or the other side of a relationship: the chaser, desperately longing for a piece, or the chasee, desperately longing for a way out. The relationships in Usher’s songs are never that tidy. In “U Remind Me,” off his third studio production and most recent c.d., 8701, Usher explains to a would-be lover that he can’t “get with” her because, of all things, she reminds him of a girl he once loved and got burned by. The chivalry! The self-denial! The Zen understanding of desire as a non-essential in life. The song is damn near Shakespearean in its scope — and it sounds good, too.

His self-abnegation is endearing. You know Usher, the millionaire person, could probably have any girl he wants, which is why his singing about not being able to connect with members of the fairer sex strikes a chord with most of us, his thousandaire listeners of the poorer sex. Ya know, some men are deeper than kiddie pools — never mind what you may have heard. Usher sings, and we men become.

Which brings us to his voice. Powerful and with great range, it’s never overused. And isn’t that the sign of a great artist? Restraint? Because you know Usher could throw down with any Broadway belter. He just chooses not to. He lets the lyrics dictate his delivery. And, typically, he’s not singing to himself or preaching to a crowd of people; instead, he’s “talking” to someone else, another character, an intimate. Like the girl in his latest 8701 single, “U Don’t Have to Call,” which, BTW, ranks up there with some of the greatest pop songs of the past couple years (e.g. Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk,” Crazy Town’s “Butterfly,” Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies”). Basically, this chick’s been dicking him around, so he’s gonna hang out with the boys. She doesn’t have to call, “it’s OK, girl,” he sings, “‘cause I will be all right tonight.” And that’s the best part of the hook: “You don’t have to call.” It gets stuck in your brain — not only because its content is empowering, but because its form is catchy. If you could see the notes on a page of tablature they would form an almost straight line with a little drop at the end. We’re not talking about anything too technically complicated here. It’s the way Usher delivers this line, with authority and resignation in his voice, that ultimately proves irresistible. Note: It’s completely impossible in this space to convey the intangibles of what his rather high, powerful voice sounds like in this instance, so just go buy the single or tune in to “The Beat” some time. You can almost imagine him on the phone with this girl as he’s singing this. It all makes perfect sense.

But we haven’t even gotten to the best parts of the song yet. There’s really not much to say about the uptempo dance beat or the production atmospherics; they’re pretty straightforward. Again, it’s all about the frenetic, original vocal melody. “Sit-u-AY-shuns,” Usher sings, rising into falsetto territory on that third syllable. Then he pauses before beginning again, “Will arise / In our lives / Butyougottabesmartaboutit,” and then he returns to the initial phrasing for another verse just like the first. You’re drawn along by the way the lines linger then speed up then curlicue. It’s real singing. And it would be shameful not to talk about the “I loved you” lyric. There, Usher reaches into the stratosphere to wrap his tenor around the first word, “I,” which he elongates into a bundle of ascending and descending notes. Inimitable. Pure Usher.

Another reason to like him is that he — unlike a lot of other teen-pop sensations — wasn’t concocted in some Miami record exec’s lab. R&B bigshot L.A. Reid of LaFace Records (Babyface’s company) had spotted the young Usher Raymond at a talent show in the singer’s hometown of Atlanta back in ’94, and Reid immediately signed the 14-year-old up. (P. Diddy, who — no matter what you think — has a way of discovering talent, was co-executive producer of Usher’s debut.) Then, after releasing My Way and graduating from high school, Usher started showing up in mainstream movies, like 1998’s The Faculty and 1999’s Light It Up. All the while he kept getting bigger and better at pop music, finally arriving at his current station as one of the hardest-working R&B performers in the world. There’s genius in consistency, and Usher gives every indication that he’ll be around for a while.

Epilogue: Nothing irritates me more than hearing about how mainstream pop will be the death of civilization. If anything, blatant bubblegum — like the kind produced by quality performers such as Nikka Costa, Matchbox 20, and Pink (and Usher) — equals civilization. What you hear on MTV is the best money can buy and technology can produce. And just think: If the height of our creative abilities was Metal Machine Music we’d be penniless bohemians, hunting buffalo for supper and outerwear, and bumming money off our parents for beer. The true avant garde will come from P. Diddy, Missy Elliot, Rob Thomas. They weren’t always superstars, ya know. They’ve seen the underground and knew that what they saw wasn’t pretty. My suggestion: Hang up your cards of authenticity or “indie cred” or whatever, and tune into MTV. You might be lucky and catch an Usher video.

Now let that marinate.

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