The Number Ones: Usher’s “U Remind Me”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

If you’re going to be a sensitive player, you need to walk a very thin line. The sensitive player is soft and wounded and approachable, but he can’t be locked down. He has to make himself hugely desirable to any women in the immediate vicinity, but he can’t make himself emotionally available to those women. He’s not just horny; he needs love. But then, when the sensitive player gets that love, he has to backpedal right away, to remove himself from any messy feelings-based entanglements. If he’s too sensitive, he can’t be a player anymore. If he leans too hard into the player side, nobody will buy his sensitivity. The sensitive player is a role, a pose, but it’s a pose that can’t be halfassed. The sensitive player has to convince you that he means what he says. He might have to convince himself, too.

I’m pretty sure Usher Raymond IV has had more success with the sensitive-player archetype than any other artist in the long history of American popular music. In his early years, Usher perfected the art of melancholy flirting. He turned himself into bait. Writing about 1998’s “Nice & Slow,” Usher’s first #1 hit, I noted something that the songwriter Manuel Seal said about Usher’s whole positioning strategy: “We didn’t want too good a guy like Michael Jackson, and we didn’t want too bad a guy like Bobby Brown. So we had to make [Usher] a nice guy but not too nice.” “U Remind Me,” the lead single from Usher’s 2001 album 8701, is nowhere near Usher’s best song, but it might be the track where Usher walked that line most expertly.

Usher didn’t have a role in writing “U Remind Me,” but the song couldn’t be any more perfect for his whole sensitive-player persona. “U Remind Me” is structured as one long breakup letter — a breakup that happens before a relationship even really begins. Usher spends the entire song telling a girl that he can’t get involved with her. That’s not because Usher is an unfeeling asshole who ditches women immediately after bedding them. It’s because he cares too much. This one girl reminds Usher of a girl that he used to know, and that’s what caught his eye in the first place. But he has to leave, since she reminds him too much of the other girl, of all the ways that the other girl hurt him. It’s a catch-22. The thing that attracts Usher is the same thing that keeps him from committing. He can’t win! Poor Usher!

Seen from a certain perspective, every lyric on “U Remind Me” is a line, a pick-up artist’s artful excuse. With a song like that, the real question is whether you can sell it, and Usher can sell anything. He can slide right out of this girl’s life, and he can make it so that she doesn’t feel like she’s been used, even if she really has been. “U Remind Me” is a relationship magician’s trick rendered in song form. To make that trick work, you need a towering, world-historical level of confidence. Confidence, fortunately enough, is something that Usher Raymond IV had never, ever lacked.

Usher went into his third album cycle with nothing but momentum. Usher’s self-titled 1994 debut had stalled out at gold, and it hadn’t launched any major hits. Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for an underage kid singing about sex over rap beats, or maybe the world just needed time to acclimate to Usher’s particular form of weaponized charisma. Whatever the case, everything clicked with Usher’s second album, 1997’s My Way. On that album, Usher figured out his smooth, flexible, rap-indebted style, and he locked into his working relationship with Jermaine Dupri. My Way eventually went septuple platinum. “Nice & Slow” hit #1, and two different singles got as high as #2.

When My Way was out, Usher did a whole lot of touring, opening for arena-level acts like Puff Daddy and Janet Jackson. He also got a little bit of an acting career going, starting with a recurring role on Brandy’s sitcom Moesha, then popping up on the Robert Townsend sitcom The Parent ‘Hood and on the soap opera The Bold And The Beautiful. From there, Usher took supporting roles in the late-’90s teen movies The Faculty and She’s All That. (In the latter, if memory serves, he’s a high-school DJ who teaches the class how to do a big choreographed dance number to a Fatboy Slim song? Makes no sense.) By 1999, Usher had graduated to lead actor, starring in the high-school hostage drama Light It Up. The movie wasn’t successful, and Usher’s whole movie career never quite happened. He just had to content himself with being one of the most successful musicians on earth instead.

The rollout for Usher’s third album was a little bumpy. Usher wanted to call the LP All About U, and he initially planned to release it late in 2000, but the release kept getting pushed back. The lead single was supposed to be “Pop Ya Collar,” a track that Usher recorded with TLC/Destiny’s Child producer Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs. “Pop Ya Collar” was a #2 hit in the UK. In the US, though, “Pop Ya Collar” leaked early on Napster and then landed with a thud, peaking at #60. When Usher finally released that third album in August 2001, it was called 8701, and “Pop Ya Collar” wasn’t on it.

When “Pop Ya Collar” flopped, it was a setback, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker. Usher had all the resources of Arista Records behind him, and he recorded the album with some of the biggest producers in R&B: Jermaine Dupri, the Neptunes, Babyface. At the VMAs in 2000, Usher’s mother, who was also his manager, approached Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were nearly two decades deep into a massive run of R&B hits. She wanted Jam and Lewis to produce “Separated,” a ballad that had been co-written by 112 member Daron Jones. Jam and Lewis usually didn’t produce songs that they didn’t at least have a hand in writing, but they were excited to work with Usher and more excited to link up with the whole Arista/LaFace system, so they took the gig. “Separated” didn’t make it onto 8701, though it served as a bonus track on some editions. After recording that song, Jam and Lewis made more tracks with Usher. One of those tracks was a song that Usher just hadn’t been able to get right.

The songwriter Edmund Clement didn’t write “U Remind Me” for Usher. Instead, Clement, who’d already written for R&B groups like 112 and Changing Faces, had his own group, an R&B trio called Hustlechild. (Hustlechild released one album, a 2002 self-titled LP, that went nowhere.) Clement and his sister Anita McCloud wrote “U Remind Me” with Hustlechild in mind, but LA Reid decided that the song was a hit, and he wanted it for Usher. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Clement recalls a conversation with Reid: “LA said, ‘I want “U Remind Me,” and I guarantee this is a #1 record. Usher needs this for his project.’ I’m a hungry young cat ready to get my break, so I said OK.” “U Remind Me” became Anita McCloud’s first writing credit, and Clement and McCloud went on to write for people like Boyz II Men and TLC.

Usher tried recording “U Remind Me” with different producers before cutting the final version with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. His earlier attempt didn’t work out. In the Bronson book, Jimmy Jam says, “Usher is very particular about what he sings. He wants to be able to totally relate to a song, and for some reason when he had done the vocal on that song, he sounded like he was distracted. It didn’t work. So we redid the vocals.” LA Reid decreed that “U Remind Me” could go one of two ways: It could be the first single from Usher’s next album, or it could be left off of the album entirely. When Reid heard what Usher made with Jam and Lewis, he immediately called the producers and said that it would be the first single — or, more accurately, the second attempt at a first single.

In the end, Jam and Lewis shared production credit with Edmund Clement, and “U Remind Me” became the last Jam and Lewis production ever to top the Hot 100. That means Jam and Lewis produced or co-produced 16 chart-toppers in the 15-year period that started with Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You.” That’s a pretty good run!

For the longest time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were able to understand where R&B was going, and they were able to shift their style, to meet listeners where they were. The sound of “U Remind Me” has nothing to do with the clattering synth-funk of Jam and Lewis’ early records, and if I didn’t know that “U Remind Me” was their work, I wouldn’t have guessed it. But that mutability worked out awfully well for Jam and Lewis. In “U Remind Me,” you can hear little touches of that old-school Jam/Lewis craftsmanship. It’s there in the warm electric-piano sound, in the funky electronic stutter of the drums, and in the subtle sample of Redman screaming “fuck you” on Puff Daddy’s 1999 track “Fake Thugs Dedication.” (Puffy has been in this column a bunch of times, and he’ll be back. Redman’s highest-charting single is the 1995 Method Man collab “How High,” which peaked at #13.)

According to Jimmy Jam, the real place where you can hear the Jam/Lewis production on “U Remind Me” is in Usher’s vocals. Jam says that Terry Lewis is a specialist at working with vocalists and that Usher was comfortable working with him. In effect, then, Terry Lewis had to coach the confidence out of Usher. Usher definitely sounds confident on “U Remind Me.” He’s fluid and softly assertive — sincere enough to sell the effects of his past heartbreak, flirty enough that you get the idea that his whole past-heartbreak thing might just be a line. Usher starts the song out with one of his spoken introductions: “Yo, I ain’t seen you in a minute, but I got something to tell you. Listen.” He goes on to lay out all the reasons why he’s been ghosting this girl, essentially making it impossible for her to get too mad.

On “U Remind Me,” Usher depicts himself as a victim: “See this girl, she sort of looks just like you/ She even smiles just the way you do/ So innocent she seemed, but I was fooled/ I’m reminded when I look at you.” This other girl, Usher claims, was “sexing everyone but me.” (You need to be really smooth to use “sex” as a verb, and Usher makes it sound a whole lot more effortless than Color Me Badd.) Usher knows that the other girl isn’t going to want to hear this, but the force of that memory is just too much, and Usher’s romantic urges can’t overcome that trauma: “I know it’s so unfair to you/ That I relate her ignorance to you/ Wish I knew/ Wish I knew how to separate the two.” Usher starts the song out calm and conversational, but by the time he hits the “wish I knew” line on the bridge, he’s wailing in pain, his own backup vocals swirling up and turning kaleidoscopic. How’s this girl going to stay mad after that performance?

“U Remind Me” is good soap opera, and it’s a nice vehicle for Usher’s whole persona. The song leaves open the question of whether Usher is really sincere over all that pain or whether he’s just coming up with an excuse for staying away from the girl who reminds him of the girl who he once knew. But the song itself never fully clicks for me. I think it’s the little synth-flute riff that sounds so much like a primitive ringtone. That part makes the song more memorable, which is the whole idea, but I find it weirdly grating. I can’t get past it.

Around 2001, a whole lot of midtempo R&B tracks sounded something like “U Remind Me,” right down to those ringtone-sounding synth riffs. The wild creativity of the late ’90s had started to fade back, and those synth textures were simply becoming the new normal. The style worked for Usher. A track like “U Remind Me” served as a showcase, both for Usher’s voice and for his image. But Usher had better showcases before “U Remind Me,” and he’d have better showcases later.

I do love Usher in the “U Remind Me” video. Director Dave Meyers, whose work has already appeared in this column a couple of times, seems to take the stance that the “U Remind Me” lyrics represent Usher’s hookup strategy, not his truthful expression of pain. In the clip, Usher uses that line on a bunch of different girls. He also does a whole lot of dancing. That’s a good thing. Usher can move across a sidewalk, in Timberlands, and make it look like he’s gliding over a frozen lake.

A few great moments in the “U Remind Me” video: Usher theatrically humps a tree during the “sexing everyone but me” line. Usher inexplicably throws his leather jacket in the garbage before pulling down a staircase and dancing his way up a fire escape. Usher gets his Fred Astaire on in a deliriously fake golden-hour streetscape, complete with extended handstand, before pulling off in a Lamborghini. And finally, Usher hitting the club and sharing a hot little moment with TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, his real-life girlfriend at the time. I wonder who she reminds him of.

Usher was 22 when “U Remind Me” reached #1, and the song set up his whole adult era nicely. The single topped the Hot 100 a month before the 8701 album even came out. Usher was a work in progress, but he was coming along nicely. It won’t be long before we see Usher in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

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