Apr 14

USHER – “You Make Me Wanna…”

Popular35 comments • 3,321 views

#782, 31st January 1998

usherwanna Another piece of the present slots into place: if you leave out charity records, this is the first artist we’ve met to also have a Number One in the 2010s. Usher fits a model for pop stardom we’ll see more frequently as we get closer to now: a teenage prodigy with material good enough to stay the distance. He’s also – again, typically for his generation of stars – a highly adaptable performer. Every now and then he’ll put out something really startling, like 2012’s “Climax”, but it seems to me that more often an Usher record is smoothly and confidently on-trend.

But what’s on-trend in R&B can be dramatic in a context like the UK charts, which hasn’t tracked black American music that closely during the Britpop years. The pared-down musical frame of “You Make Me Wanna…” – pensive flickers of harp over a darting, unsettled beat – comes as a cooling, welcome reminder that maximalism and lushness have their limits.

Like a lot of the best modern R&B, “You Make Me Wanna…” is psychological drama: a chorus that zeroes in on a particular situation, then verses that expand and explain it. Every nervy, spartan component of the song is angled towards exploring Usher’s state of mind, the love triangle he’s found himself in. So you get a vocal structure where the chorus – is played as a perpetual mutter below the song, thoughts looping and trailing as this kid tries to decide what to do: “think about a ring you know the things that come along with you make me you make me”. Meanwhile the verses fill in the backstory – the friend he’s fallen for actually introduced him to his girl – and the middle-eight has him jump into his choice (or does he? After a few moments of ad-libbed climax, the mutter starts right up again).

It’s a claustrophobic record, with production a little too spare to sustain itself, particularly on the fade. But it’s also a reminder of what R&B brought to soul music, as the cheater’s dilemma is one of the great recurring soul topics – it lets a singer really cut loose on guilt and shame. Usher is either too green or too smooth to do that effectively, but the chorus of “You Make Me Wanna…” shifts the emotional emphasis from the singing to its nervous rhythm as Usher rides the beat. It captures the nagging, obsessive repetition of thought in a tough situation in a way more gutbusting styles couldn’t, giving “You Make Me Wanna…” a different kind of immediacy.



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  1. 26
    Cumbrian on 22 Apr 2014 #

    Rather than think of what this points towards, I’m just happy with what it is – which I think is rather good. It seems to fit a lot of words and syllables into short spaces, the better to convey the singer spilling his guts (or at least the rush of his thoughts as he is contemplating spilling his guts), whilst never seeming in too much of a rush, which is a trick in and of itself. Also appreciate Usher’s use of the low, almost mumbly, style, as if ashamed of the thoughts and needs to keep it to himself before he just can’t control himself and raises the volume (“all I seem to think about is you”). It’s a really good performance, more than anything else, as far as I am concerned and I would say 6 is a bit stingy. I’ve gone up to 8.

  2. 27
    snoball on 22 Apr 2014 #

    On paper, I should have hated this record: smooth R&B vocals, two timing singer asking us to sympathise with his situation, etc.. But I actually like this record. The comments above about this sounding like the future are OTM – it’s the first #1 to get away from the stodge and sludge of the late 90s.

  3. 28
    Ed on 22 Apr 2014 #

    @22 Your mention of ‘Pony’ made me think about Ginuwine: did Usher get the career that he should have had? Hearing ‘Pony’ for the first time, two years before YMMW in 1996, was a revelation. That really did sound like the future: Timbaland clearly exulting in the discovery of what he was capable of, and what he could get away with, with that brilliant / ridiculous vocal sampled bassline. Ginuwine himself combined poise and intensity in a way that I hadn’t heard since Marvin Gaye, and although the follow-up Prince cover was a blatant bid to anoint himself as the natural heir, it didn’t feel at all illegitimate.

    He never really became a star, though. Some of the subsequent records were great, but none made number one. When last seen he was back working with Timbaland – after a long period of estrangement – and released a single that peaked outside the US top 100 in 2010. Proof, I guess, that that era of R&B really is over now.

    Usher is younger and more marketable, I suppose, and was always more likely to be a pop star. But I still think Ginuwine could have been bigger than he turned out to be.

  4. 29
    Ed on 22 Apr 2014 #

    Ginuwine did at least last longer than others such as Tweet and Amerie, who made one or two brilliant records and then disappeared.

    I wonder, too, about Aaliyah, whose career was cut short for very different reasons and was still making great music until the day she died. Would she now be a judge on The Voice?

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    lartsaegis on 22 Apr 2014 #

    I think Ginuwine took his natural course musically. Sure, he wasn’t a global megastar, but he’s a multi-platinum selling artist, been behind some classic song(s )(depending on who you ask) and no one can take that way from him. It seems that even without the novelty of Timbaland though he was able to stay afloat as an artist for a long while, but he became one of those R&B stars that floated to the periphery and even further, like Tyrese or Tank, two people he formed the supergroup TGT with most recently. I think this would have been the fate of a lot of people Timbaland was behind foremostly, Aaliyah may have been an exception as it seems they had a closer bond than business but, hey.

  6. 31
    wadey on 23 Apr 2014 #

    some facts:

    1. when I went to buy a new stereo, the man in the shop played this to show the speakers off. The stereo never lasted past two years.

    2. I’d hear this through the wall regularly “thanks” to the neighbours.

    3. Er. That’s it.

  7. 32
    Rory on 23 Apr 2014 #

    I was visiting London when this hit number one (and while “All Around the World” was), showing my wife the city I had loved in 1985-86 and 1991-92. We both felt rather ambivalent about it, coming off the back of a few weeks in Germany (and before that, Sweden, Canada, the US, and New Zealand). The grime and noise of the underground (before some of its millennial facelifts) were pretty dismal after Germany’s U-bahns, and the cost of living in London relative to NZ/Australia – or anywhere else we had visited that trip – left us breathless, especially as the A$ had collapsed at the start of our round-the-world adventure and we were eking out our savings whichever way we could.

    Even though we were in the UK when Usher hit the top, we were in a bubble of friends, extended family, and sightseeing, oblivious to whatever was happening in any charts anywhere, so I listened to this the other day with virgin ears, and today for only the second time. It’s a pleasant enough sound, nothing I’d switch off if it came on the radio, but I can’t find a hook that lifts it above the average for me. My ears aren’t particularly attuned to R&B in any case, which promises either enlightening or awkward times ahead. In this early encounter it probably knocks off a point or two. 5.

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    wichitalineman on 23 Apr 2014 #

    Was there much R&B mumblecore about at the time? This pre-dates the above-mentioned Thong Song by more than two years. It’s lyrically involving, but in a wash of half-heard lines, the muttered “new relationship” is the only line I remember, and still sounds like the unlikely hook on a melodically barren single.

    Like Ciaran, this just doesn’t sound like a number one to me, a Top 10 hit but no more. 16 years distance doesn’t help me to get why this hit bigger than other ‘on trend’ R&B singles of early ’98.

    At the risk of agreeing with absolutely everyone, the production of YMMW certainly points forward to the next century and, irrespective of whether it was ahead of the game or super-contemporary, it’s the first Popular entry to do so. Only the Spanish guitar grounds it in ’98. Still, there’s more for me to admire here than there is for me to love.

  9. 34
    James BC on 23 Apr 2014 #

    Maybe part of the reason Thong Song works for me is that it repeats the same verse three times. Mumbled or not, I’ve got it by the end, which I can’t say about Usher’s verses.

    Repeated verses are under-used in music generally in my opinion. The only other example I can think of right now is Cast No Shadow by Oasis.

  10. 35
    AMZ1981 on 24 Apr 2015 #

    A rather belated note that since this piece was published Usher is no longer the first chart topping artist chronologically to have had a number in the 2010s as Take That have subsequently hit the top in the current decade.

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