LaFace Records/ Sony Music Entertainment
The Usher on this album’s cover looks fifteen years old and kind of chubby, don’t you think? Yeah, Who knew?
So, Usher’s debut album was released in 1994. Before those of you who were around in ’94 think I’m shitting you because You Make Me Wanna came out years later: that song which was his breakthrough single in 1997, but it was not his debut single. An entire self-titled album preceded it. Now, you are forgiven if you don’t even barely remember this album it wasn’t a very big success. It was however, as we all know now, the kick-start of a very successful career that is still going strong today. (Although what Usher is most known for today is dancing around with Justin Bieber in his videos. In many a way Usher’s career is quite similar to that of JB (although not completely, because obviously there was no such thing youtube in ‘94.) Usher Raymond IV was born in 1978 in Dallas, Texas but spent most of his younger years in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was raised by his single mother, who until 2007 was also his manager. In 1991 he joined a local Urban Boy band called NuBeginning, which fucking sucked and after one bootleg-ish album he was out again. In 1993 he was on Star Search which apparently was the early ‘90s equivalent of American Idol/ Pop Idol where he was spotted by an LaFace A&R guy who arranged an audition for one of that label’s head honchos, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, and Usher left they guy very much impressed which meant that he had hit the jackpot because LaFace was big pimpin’ at the time when it was R&B acts that was concerned. After L.A. put his debut single Call Me a Mack on the soundtrack to the John Singleton-directed, 2pac and Janet Jackson co-starring 1993 drama film Poetic Justice the recording of his debut album could commence. Because in 1994 Get him to the Greek’s Sean “Sergio Roma” Combs was also becoming a big name in urban music after successfully launching his Bad Boy Entertainment imprint via the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Craig Mack’s Project: Funk the World albums and because L.A.’s partner in crime Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was probably busy writing and producing every goddamn song on the radio at the time the album was overseen by L.A. and Puff. Both of them had musical connections a plenty and, among others Al B. Sure!, JoDeCi’s DeVanté Swing, Faith Evans, Brian-Alexander Morgan, Dave “Jam” Hall, Puffy himself, and Timbaland, who allegedly produced alongside of DeVante but wasn’t credited, were all drummed up to make this fifteen-year-old sound good. Usher was relocated from his Atlanta residence to Puff Daddy’s house where he was allegedly exposed for the first time in his life to marijuana, alcohol, sex and hanging around with the big stars. Possibly because Puff, didn’t want his name on some kiddy stuff but rather wanted to make an
adult mature album and wanted Usher to have the experience to sing the material being someone who really lived that shit, but more likely because marijuana, alcohol, sex and big stars are the things you are going to encounter in abundance when hanging around at one of the residences owned by the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, and when you let a 15 year old walk around in such a place unattended to, well, you get the picture. They got it cracking and released Usher’s self-titled debut… to the sound of crickets, but after all these years of collecting dust on record store shelves this finally sold over 500 k. And it is my favorite Usher album.
Wanna know why?, read on!
1. I’ll Make It Right
This cool-ass, grooving Puff Daddy-Alex Richbourg co-helmed hiphop track gives it up to the old school by throwing in a soundbite from the Audio Two’s classic Top Billin’, which was a nice touch and a trick repeated by 50 Cent on his 2007 hit single I Get Money, albeit with a different sample from that song. Beatwise this is what people today, who have never actually heard the real thing, would call old school hiphop, but it’s still pretty decent. Usher’s singing is technically okay and with all these factors combined I would say that this was in fact a pretty decent album opener.
2. Interlude I
A lot of 1990s R&B albums have these, short
melodramatic melodic interludes. I’m not sure why these exist, other than to fill up a cd’s playing time or up the total amount of tracks contained within the compact disc. It sure as hell does beat hiphop’s tendency of throwing generally unfunny skits in between songs because unlike that kind of bullshit this does in fact count as actual music.
3. Can U Get Wit It?
Puff’s Uptown Records homeboy and JoDeCi member and producer DeVanté Swing writes and produces a quintessentially mid-‘90s R&B-G-funkish-sex ballad, classy vocoder work included, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since he pioneered this style with said group. Off course since this is a carbon copy of that group’s musical output one could now compare Usher’s vocal style to theirs and make some sense with the comparison. Usher is a much more modest singer than K-Ci and Jojo are, and it’s refreshing to hear a JoDeCi song, performed without their typically flashy, over the top melisma. (That would be my biggest beef with ‘90s contemporary R&B, seriously boys and girls… Just because Stevie sounded okay enough hitting every note on the ladder doesn’t mean you will too. Oh, nevermind. That piece of honest advice came seventeen years too late… And for Usher it was unnecessary. He got it already.) On the other hand the fifteen year old incarnation of Ush doesn’t really sound comfortable singing this adult themed material like he hadn’t done any of this sex stuff yet (which, for all we know might be the truth.) So concluding: I really liked the beat and even sort of liked Usher’s interpretation of a Jodeci song, however, this reminded me just a little bit of the Key of Awesome’s parody of Justin Bieber, which ironically contains the line “I know all of Usher’s dances.” as well as those duets between the Lonely Island and Justin Timberlake (Dick In a Box, Motherlover, 3way (Golden Rule)) anyone of them applies, because they are each parodies of this particular musical era and genre) so overall meh.
4. Think of You
This velvetty Puff Daddy-Chucky Thompson co-production rocks a Biz Markie vocal sample lifted from his guest appearance on Big Daddy Kane’s Just Rhymin’ With Biz and was co-written by Faith Evans, Usher and Usher’s future LaFace-labelmate Donell Jones. This is both a lot more catchy and a lot less risqué than the previous single. Can U Get Wit It, hence it sounds a lot better and more credible and it was probably because of that why this became the only minor hit song off Usher. Either way. If one of you readers want to make me really, really happy please leave a comment listing all the similar songs from this era you know about because I fucking love this one.
Crazy is a love ballad driven by a pretty good shuffling instrumental created by Brian-Alexander Morgan, the guy behind most of SWV’s hits, with Usher putting in a decent emotive performance.
6. Slow Love
This has got the same credibility problem as Can U Get Wit It but not nearly as good an instrumental.
7. The Many Ways
Written and produced by Kiyamma Griffin and early ‘90s R&B superstar Al B. Sure! this lush, hooky, melodic, extra suave ballad is by far the best song off Usher. Yes the use of a piano-intro which then morphs into an outdated synth plus the sound effect of a drop of water sizzling on a hot metallic surface is the pinnacle of cheesy. Yes, indeed, there isn’t much substance to be found on The Many Ways but contemporary R&B songs generally aren’t the place to look for when it’s well thought-through interesting lyrics that’s concerned. When it’s catchy music and lyrics one can easily relate to though, this is definitely your genre and in these aspects The Many Ways delivers very well. The video however tries to sell Usher as the pint-sized loverman again, which didn’t work all that well at the time of release since nobody bought either the single or the album, but today is fun sorta, kinda… since he comes off as some random fifteen-year-old kid who looks and sounds like Usher a lot parodying the 2004 version of him really well.
8. I’ll Show You Love
This groovy, James Brown sampling Puff Daddy-Alex Richbourg instrumental is really good, but Usher, while sounding decent comes across as a tool, which means you could put pretty much put any R&B singer on here and have a quality song… (Well any R&B singer except Jason Derülo, that guy sucks! Oh, and Trey Songz and… Whoever else has only been popular in the post-autotune era? Right, That guy is an exception too! )
9. Interlude 2 (Can’t Stop)
Please refer to my comments on Interlude 1.
10. Love Was Here
Too dramatic for the fifteen year old Usher to carry. If the song’s writer Al B. Sure! used it for himself and would’ve let his falsetto fetish run wild over, this would’ve sounded a lot more natural and better because of it.
Whoa, DeVanté returns to the studio with a beat so goddamn chilled-out and uplifting that I forgot about Usher’s existence for five minutes straight, and he was singing on the entirety of the song.
12. You Took My Heart
Heavy D’s homeboy DJ Eddie F drops by with an instrumental that fits the rest of the album sonically but does little more. It carries Usher’s vocals to their intended destination but isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off. Although you won’t be inclined to interrupt your knocking of boots (ha!) to press the >| button if you would have this album on.
13. Smile Again
Puff, Herb Middleton and Faith write a bluesy song that probably would’ve been a better fit for Faith, herself, although Usher doesn’t do a terrible job with it. I really wonder to whom the high note at the end of this song belongs.
14. Final Goodbye
A breakup song that serves double duty as a supposedly clever announcement that the album is over, and so was Usher’s career for the time being. On the real though, sometime after this album’s release this really did seem like a final goodbye. The albums chart positions, record sales and radio play weren’t very good and if it weren’t for his later successes it would be highly unlikely that Usher would ever even earn a gold plaque, which eventually it just barely did probably in the absence of a follow-up in the years following My Way.
I’ll Make It Right, Crazy, Think Of You, The Many Ways, I’ll Show You Love, Whispers
So yeah. I really dig this album. Yes, Usher hasn’t really found his voice here yet, yes extremely dated sound, yes few outstanding radio singles, yes Usher’s vocals are wholly unexceptional and melt away in Usher’s expensive ass production. I know, I know. I just heard the thing. But what I like about this is its un-poppy, unmistakably 1994 hiphop-soul sound. Because of all the cheesy instrumentation, its occasional straightforward jacking of elements of other tracks and because of there being only one singer on leads for the entire album there’s a remarkable consistency to be found on here. Also returning to the point of Usher’s singing being secondary to the beats. I think here this is a good thing. If K-Ci and JoJo sang these songs the vocals would probably be more impressive but they would try to impress the listener with their vocal ranges rather than just sing the goddamn songs already, a tendency which makes their JoDeCi songs so distinctive and most of their post-JoDeCi work so goddamn unlistenable. Besides Usher’s vocals are competent enough and the songs are generally well written for what they are. This album doesn’t provide any clues as to why three years after this album’s flopping Usher was still signed to LaFace and got to record a sophomore album but I’m glad he did anyway because Ush, save for his post Here I Stand work, of which I have heard very little as always been one of the better pop radio artists around. But we’ll discuss follow-up albums in due time. [Edit: Finally I would like to point out my own hypocrisy before anyone else does. Yes, I liked this album pretty much for the exact same reasons I hated Justin’s My Worlds. Deal with it, bitch. There is nothing one can objectively say about music. This reviewer knows this and hence, what is boringly repetitive on Justin’s album can be remarkably consistent here.]
For fans of early ‘90s, post-New Jack Swing R&B (Mary J. Blige, Ginuwine, JoDeCi, Al B. Sure!, Aaliyah, R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, Brandy, Ralph Tresvant et al.) picking this one up should be a no-brainer. This takes you back from the era of Blackberries and Biebers to the simpler era of Pagers and high top fades in an instant. For fans of Usher as a pop artist, this is a tough one. Usher doesn’t sound like any of his follow-up albums. All which came after this was decidedly pop-radio oriented compared to this, which is best at home on (currently throwback) quiet storm-radio formats. There’s nothing on here which is as catchy as You Make Me Wanna, U Remind Me or such and hence fans of those songs are possibly going to find this hella boring. But you can test this for yourself by listening to the songs listed in the best tracks cathegory. Especially Think of You and The Many Ways are fit for this purpose.