The Number Ones: Usher’s “Nice & Slow”


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Have you ever seen Usher Raymond IV in person? He doesn’t seem real. He seems like a mirage. His smile is too bright. His voice is too smooth. When he dances, it’s like he’s gliding sideways across the surface of a lake. Pop stardom is always a matter of timing and circumstances, but when you see Usher, it’s hard to imagine an alternate universe in which this guy is anything other than a pop star. Try this: Close your eyes and picture Usher as a carpenter or a college professor or a dentist. You can’t. It doesn’t compute. All of those images turn into gauzy, sexy music-video scenarios. Very few people were born to be pop stars, but Usher was one of them.

Nine years ago, I was at the FADER Fort at SXSW, and Usher was a surprise guest. The headliners that night were the Afghan Whigs, and Usher came out at the end of their set to sing a few songs with them. Usher didn’t make a particularly convincing indie rock frontman, but he didn’t really try. Instead, he was simply Usher, and the members of this great band simply faded into fuzzy shapes behind him. Even in this situation — a few years after his last #1 hit, slumming through a sort of hipster publicity stunt — the Usher I saw was the same glowing kid who’d first topped the Hot 100 in the early days of 1998.

That first chart conquest took Usher a little while, but it was going to happen. It was inevitable. Even as a teenager, Usher was a titan in waiting. “Nice & Slow,” Ursh’s first chart-topper, was a space-age sex-jam, and many more would follow.

Usher Raymond IV was born in Dallas and mostly raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (When Usher was born, the #1 song in America was Exile’s “Kiss You All Over,” which seems weirdly appropriate.) Usher’s biological father gave him a name but didn’t stick around; he was raised by his medical-technician mother and his stepfather. In Chattanooga, Usher started singing in church at age nine. A year later, he joined a local kiddie-R&B singing group called NuBeginning, and he recorded an album’s worth of material with them. (It came out after he got famous.) But Usher’s mom didn’t see much of a future in NuBeginning, and she did see a future in Usher’s singing career, so the family packed up and moved to Atlanta when Usher was still a kid.

Usher’s mother started entering him in local talent shows. Usher won those talent shows. The footage from those talent shows is great: Usher singing Boyz II Men, reaching out to hold hands with girls in the audience, making a spectacle of himself. AJ Alexander, Bobby Brown’s bodyguard, caught one of Usher’s talent-show performances, and he arranged for an audition with LA Reid, who signed Usher to LaFace. When that happened, Usher’s mom quit her job and became his manager full-time.

The 15-year-old Usher’s debut single “Call Me A Mack” came out as part of the soundtrack to the 1993 film Poetic Justice, and it’s a clear attempt to tap into whatever was left of the new jack swing wave. The song made a slight dent in the R&B charts, and it didn’t get anywhere near the Hot 100. The next year, LA Reid sent Usher to New York. The idea was that Puff Daddy would take Usher under his wing and help him craft a persona. Years later, Usher told Rolling Stone that his time in Puff’s “Flavor Camp” was the hardest stretch of his career: “Puff introduced me to a totally different set of shit — sex, specifically. Sex is so hot in the industry, man… There was always girls around. You’d open a door and see somebody doing it, or several people in a room having an orgy. You never knew what was going to happen.” (I really enjoy the phrase “sex is so hot in the industry, man.”)

Usher’s self-titled 1994 debut was positioned as a big deal. Puff Daddy was an executive producer, and lots of big songwriters and producers worked on the record: Faith Evans, Donnell Jones, Jodeci’s DeVante Swing. Relative to its expectations, though, the album fell flat. Its biggest hit, the Puffy/Chucky Thompson production “Think Of You,” went top 10 on the R&B charts, but it only reached #58 on the Hot 100. The album stopped short of gold. After its release, Usher’s mother put him back on the talent-show circuit in Atlanta.

After that first album bricked, Usher developed a rapport with Atlanta figurehead Jermaine Dupri, who produced most of his sophomore album My Way. Together, they figured out a sound that fit Usher much better than the Puffy approach. My Way is a slick, glassy take on R&B. The record is full of pianos and acoustic guitars, but those instruments never feel real. Tracks hover weightless, sometimes getting into a tamer version of the jittery stop-start production that Timbaland was injecting into the pop charts at the time. Usher sings a lot about sex, and his voice sounds tender and frictionless. It skates over those tracks. Usher sometimes delivers his lyrics a little bit like a rapper, in dense clusters of syllables. He does melismatic runs, too, but they never sound effortful. Instead, he glides with a mechanistic efficiency. Even at his most passionate, he sounds blithe, unconcerned.

Usher effectively introduced that new sound, which would become the new sound of both pop and R&B in the years ahead, with “You Make Me Wanna…,” the lead single from My Way. “You Make Me Wanna…” has a beat driven by herky-jerk drum programming and staccato gasps, and its acoustic guitar sounds like something that the liquid metal Terminator might play while sitting around a campfire. Usher sings about ditching one relationship for another, and he makes it sound like the natural choice, not something worth too much anguish. That song is the moment that everything clicked. “You Make Me Wanna…” got as high as #2, and it probably would’ve gone all the way if “Candle In The Wind 1997” wasn’t hogging up all the space at the top of the charts. (“You Make Me Wanna…” is an 8.) Usher was made.

By the time Usher released the follow-up single “Nice & Slow,” the My Way album was already platinum. By the time “Nice & Slow” reached #1, it was double platinum. (It would go on to sell six million domestic.) “Nice & Slow” made perfect sense after “You Make Me Wanna…” The track hit that same clean, ripple-free R&B mold. It’s a song about wanting to have sex really, really badly. Usher starts out the song — at seven o’clock on the dot — driving around and thinking about how he’s got plans to put his hands in places he never seen, girl, you know what he means. He spends the rest of the song pleading, saying that he wants to take things nice and slow while making it clear that he does not plan to wait much longer. His pleas never really sound like pleas. This guy knows he’s about to get laid.

“Nice & Slow” doesn’t exactly break any lyrical ground, but the song’s innovations are in the way it uses its production and Usher’s voice. On the intro, when he’s telling you to get it hot for him and to wear that little thing he likes, Usher does the old Philly soul spoken-word thing, but that’s where the similarities end. The track itself sounds clean and airless, full of precise guitar-flutters and carefully calibrated synth tones. Usher himself locks into different cadences. Most of the time, he sings straightforwardly about doing something freaky to you. But then he breaks into these little tourettic half-rap jags, like the part where he spells out his name and makes “O-N-D” sound like “oh, indeed.”

On the bridge, Usher sings a line over and over again: “I’ll freak you right, I will.” But he intentionally trips over the word “freak” and makes it sound like something else. More than once, I heard “Nice & Slow” on the radio and figured that they’d accidentally played the explicit version, but there is no explicit version. Usher just made the world hear “fuck” where there was no “fuck.”

Jermaine Dupri co-wrote “Nice & Slow” with three other writers: Usher himself, Dupri’s “Always Be My Baby” collaborator Manuel Seal, and Brian Casey, one of the two identical twins in the Dupri-affiliated R&B quartet Jagged Edge. (Jagged Edge’s highest-charting single, the 2001 Nelly collab “Where The Party At,” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Usher says that “Nice & Slow” was drawn from his own life: “That was my daily routine after I came home from the studio. I’d pick up the telephone and call my girl, and it went a little something like the beginning of the song.” I love how every Usher interview has lines where you have to imagine him pausing after the sentence so that any women nearby can scream.

In the Bronson book, Manuel Seal talks about “Nice & Slow” more in terms of positioning than nuts-and-bolts songwriting: “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.” Maybe some of that thought went into the “Nice & Slow” video, a truly beautiful piece of absurd maximalist filmmaking. The great Hype Williams shot Usher in Paris, and the beginning of the video fits pretty standard R&B-loverman tropes. Usher gets off a plane and then dances shirtless in front of the Eiffel Tower, sometimes pretending to play guitar. He also romances Kimora Lee Simmons, who looks hot as fuck and who had not yet married and divorced Russell Simmons or launched the Baby Phat clothing line. That’s all pretty normal, by ’90s R&B video standards, but then things take a turn.

About halfway through the “Nice & Slow” video, Usher’s fancy convertible stops in the middle of the street, surrounded by generic bad-guy types. They beat up Usher and kidnap Kimora Lee Simmons. Then they put her in what appears to be a dog crate, which is not normal or generic by any standards. Usher goes to the police, desperate and pleading, throwing papers in the air in frustration, and then he cools himself out by dancing shirtless in front of the Eiffel Tower some more. Then Usher puts on an eyepatch and rides his motorcycle to the bad guys’ hideout. He fools them with the old exploding-briefcase trick, and then he dance-fights through the smoke of the explosion. Usher and Kimora proceed to ride off as the bad guys’ hideout blows to pieces. (Usher must’ve hid some more exploding briefcases in there.) That’s the Hype Williams touch, man. That’s that real slick, beautiful insanity. This column is now into my absolute favorite music-video era, when the budgets were huge and when nobody felt any pressure to make any kind of narrative sense.

“Nice & Slow” doesn’t hit with the same immediacy of “You Make Me Wanna…,” and it hasn’t lasted in quite the same way, though that whole “I’ll freak you right, I will” part definitely entered the rap and R&B lexicon. But without another “Candle In The Wind” sucking up all the air in the room, “Nice & Slow” cruised right to #1. Usher followed “Nice & Slow with the excellently bleepy and efficient “My Way.” In the video, Usher wore Clockwork Orange eye makeup and dance-battled Tyrese in the LA River. That video may have invented the visual sensibility of every Step Up sequel. Great shit. (“My Way” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

For Usher, this was merely the beginning. We will see a whole lot more of that man in this column.

GRADE: 7/10 - The Number Ones: Usher’s “Nice & Slow” (

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