Usher — “Burn”

Released: 4.13.04

Peak: #1

Usher Raymond is the biggest black R&B star of his generation. He’s also the most self-obsessed, and that’s no coincidence. In the age of the mack, with even serial monogamy too great a challenge, a man can only be sensitive about one thing: How much of a toll fucking around takes on his conscience. Usher may acknowledge a male shallowness his R&B predecessors papered over with fancy promises, but in doing so he often confuses self-pity and self-knowledge and undercuts any pretensions to candor.

Confessions, with its hits inextricable from the star’s “real life,” was the ideal blockbuster for an age in which celebrity gossip had just begun to crowd out all other forms of cultural commentary. “Yeah” may be more fun at wedding receptions than “Celebration,” but it still blames club-goin’ hos for leading Ursh into temptation. And “Confessions Part II,” in which the singer knocks up his “chick on the side” and focuses on how hard it is for him to confess to his “real” love, demonstrates a sociopath’s level empathy toward the other two points in this triangle.

And yet, as with so many Usher’s hits from the image-defining “U Make Me” onward, both songs are redeemed by the detail of their narratives, which suggest a three-dimensional emotional response to a situation that’s realistic even if unsympathetic. But “Burn” goes a step beyond this. The first verse is a more callow “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”; by verse two, the tool already regrets his decision. But in both cases, the only solution is to let the pain burn itself out. Constructed from Usher’s deteriorating relationship with Chili Thomas by Jermaine Dupri and his go-to hack accomplice Bryan-Michael Cox, “Burn” may be the most strictly Usher-centric of Usher hits. It may also be his most universal.

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