Usher has had a career filled with many sparkling moments, and yet this one feels like it outsizes them all. After dazzling Las Vegas with his “My Way” residency for 100 shows, the singer didn’t stop to catch his breath—in fact, he braced for maximum impact, announcing the release of his ninth album “Coming Home” (his first in eight years), an upcoming North American tour and a coveted booking as the performer during the Super Bowl Halftime show, taking place on Feb. 11.
More from Variety
It makes sense, then, that Usher would play the biggest stage in the world at this point in his career—he’s done the work. Ever since debuting with his eponymous 1994 album at just 15 years old, he has repeatedly proven to be a chameleonic tour de force, whether it be traipsing genres across albums and stacking nine number-one Billboard Hot 100 hits to gracing the silver screen and building his portfolio as an entrepreneur.
With a discography that stretches across decades and timeless hits to his name, the 45-year-old has consistently proven that a legacy is only as strong as the talent and hard work behind it. And Usher has the track record to show for it. Before he takes the biggest stage in the world, Variety takes a look back at his best singles, spanning the ballads to the bops.
10. U Remind Me
Usher planted his flag as an R&B scion with his eponymous debut and more mature, befitting follow-up “My Way,” but answered the call to pop superstardom with “U Remind Me,” the first single off of 2001’s “8701.” With its cartwheeling synths and swishy hi-hats, “U Remind Me” disproportionately leans on its chorus—after all, it repeats eight times throughout the song—but it doesn’t feel overbearing, instead creating a playground for Usher to do what he does best: hammer the point of the song home with the space to let his vocal runs shine.
9. My Way
The title track from Usher’s 1997 sophomore album centered the singer as something of a bad boy. While lead single “You Make Me Wanna…” pointed him towards wherever his romantic inklings dictated, “My Way” did the opposite, attracting a potential love interest away from her boyfriend and laughing squarely in his face over it. With Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal in the driver’s seat on production, Usher glides across the percolating instrumental, setting the precedent that he’s a woman-stealing paramour—something that recurs later in his career on “U Don’t Have to Call.”
8. Good Kisser
As his career unfurled, Usher started to become much less subtle, and “Good Kisser” feels like a fulcrum moment in his exploration of innuendo. It’s easy to see what he’s getting at on this non-album track—”She’s such a good kisser, got lipstick on my leg,” he winks—but there’s an allure coded into the song itself. Usher slinks across the song as the drums tumble behind his octave-spanning vocals, creating a wobbling sense that it’s all about to skid off the tracks. But it always snaps back into place, confidently finding its footing.
7. Throwback featuring Jadakiss
At the time that Usher recorded “Throwback,” producer Just Blaze was undoubtedly in his imperial phase, coming off of helming now-institutional records for Jay-Z and Cam’Ron. The melodicism of his sample flips teed Usher up for one of his most soulful songs to date, with a gushy instrumental that’s wrapped around a sample of Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me.” Usher bemoans the loss of a love that will never return on “Throwback,” replaying where the relationship went wrong as Warwick’s ringing vocal sample plays against his moans of regret.
6. Yeah! featuring Lil’ Jon and Ludacris
When he gives it a go, Usher is the ultimate party-rocker, and “Yeah!” featuring Lil’ Jon and Ludacris makes the case. As the lead single off 2004’s “Confessions,” the synth-smeared track is all sweat and heavy pants, playing like a call to action. Usher’s chants on the chorus are the stuff earworms are made of, while Lil’ Jon’s signature adlibs give a rough edge to the almost surgical instrumental propelling it all forward. Add a jocular Ludacris rap break to the mix and it coalesces into an unshakable anthem, one that’s withstood the test of time.
5. U Got It Bad
The sense of drama that swirls as Usher gives a diaphragm howl at the start of “U Got It Bad” is a clear indicator that he’s going through it, and he isn’t just going to tell you why. The song, written with Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, isn’t your standard pining love ballad. Usher is flooded by his infatuation to the point of rendering him useless, almost to a pitying extent. As a guitar flutters beneath him, he’s conversational in a way that gives the track immediacy: Anyone who’s had a crush grow into something more sinister can relate, and he shows you how it manifests.
While much of Usher’s 2012 album “Looking 4 Myself” shape shifted across genre and style (some of its more EDM-concerned inclusions didn’t age particularly well), “Climax” stood out as a trend-bucker. To see Usher work with Diplo and Ariel Rechtshaid at a time when they had peak outré cred was a brilliant creative mood, and together they confected a song that reflects back on what its title suggests. As he sings directly to a partner who’s on the outs, Usher expertly toys with vocal restraint as an emotive tool. He sings in a delicate falsetto for much of it, and as the song tensely builds towards an explosive payoff, it never actually gets there, leaving the notes hanging in the air.
3. U Don’t Have to Call
If one thing is true, it’s that Usher knows how to have a good time, even in the face of hardship. On “U Got It Bad,” the second single from 2001’s “8701,” he gets swept away by romantic feelings he simply can’t shake and wallows in his own longing. What he accomplished with his follow-up single “U Don’t Have to Call” was showing emotional versatility: Even when he’s victim to his own desires, he can still float away from them. The Neptunes-produced “U Don’t Have to Call” is peak player Usher—don’t bother leaving your girl around him, she’s his for the taking—and celebrates the release that a night on the town can offer. Here, he’s having fun, and sounds so good doing it.
2. Confessions, Pt. II
Career-long collaborator Jermaine Dupri helped Usher architect his sound and scope as a musician, and has regularly been a key figure in confecting some of his biggest hits. Enter “Confessions Part II,” a mid-tempo ballad directly inspired by Dupri’s experience of a love triangle gone wrong, where he impregnated a side chick and was slapped with the reality of having to explain the situation to his main girl. But part of what makes Usher such an intuitive artist is his ability to translate experiences to fit his own—upon the song’s release, for instance, most speculated on who Usher was talking about. He sings “Confessions Part II” with conviction and a touch of shame, somehow evoking sympathy when he’s clearly the bad-acting catalyst.
1. You Make Me Wanna
What makes this his most optimal, most Usher song is that it perfectly embodies the Usher experience. After his introduction as a doe-eyed R&B aspirant on his eponymous 1994 debut, he largely skated away from the sound established on that album—the tinny mid-range percussion dominating New Jack Swing at the time—for something smoother and aesthetically richer. “You Make Me Wanna…” arrived as the lead single off 1997’s “My Way,” repositioning him as a full-throated lothario who not only tussles with the hardships of romance but also acts as the progenitor of them. Over a satin guitar lick and quiet storm percussion care of Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal, Usher is less overcome by his feelings for a woman as he is at war with them. Should he risk it all? Will a potential relationship be more satiating than the one he currently has? It’s why Usher continues to be such a compelling figure: wracked by indecision, saddled with emotions he can’t control and, above all, mercurial enough as an artist to deliver it in the most seductive way possible.
Best of Variety