Apr 14

USHER – “You Make Me Wanna…”

Popular38 comments • 5,122 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.



  1. 1
    lartsaegis on 21 Apr 2014 #

    6 is about right with me for this, 7 at my most nostalgic. Ask the kid me who was dancing in his Yankees baseball cap, trying to seduce girls under street lights while Nice & Slow was booming in the background, and I’d say “who are you?” but I’d concede to an 8 at the time. Really, Usher took the whole inter-intra-personal soap opera and pioneered it in my mind where people like R. Kelly were way over my frame of reference, and he only topped/refined himself with later tracks like U Don’t Have To Call (prod. Pharrell), U Remind Me, U Got It Bad (you see a theme here) his feature on Diddy’s I Need A Girl Part 1, and way later in Burn and Confessions. From here, he took off in all aspects and never looked back. I’d be a fool to give it anymore than said 6 or 7 knowing heights like those. This would lend well to a UK Garage edit now that I think about it, time to see if anyone did any.

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Setting aside Usher absolves himself of any responsibility for contemplating infidelity, this is a very likeable slice of R&B minimalism. Perhaps the opposite of R Kelly, with subtle low-key whispers and creamy-smooth delivery. The video with the Jamiroquai dance moves and the easy charm, the perfect antidote to Oasis’ superlong and super awful psychedelic epic. Definitely worth a 7

  3. 3
    flahr on 21 Apr 2014 #

    So, er, this isn’t the Blue song then. Admittedly this is more fitting with what I know of Usher (ie his most recent bunny) than “U Make Me Wanna” would have been; nervy, cool, oddly comforting in the way that people who are around for ages always are.

  4. 4
    lonepilgrim on 21 Apr 2014 #

    I don’t remember hearing it at the time but this sounds like the sound of the future to my ears, rather than the stale nostalgia of Britpop. The production is light and elastic allowing the singer to dance around the beat. I rarely follow lyrics although it does seem to get a bit tied up in the middle which may suit the theme of infidelity. 6 or 7 from me

  5. 5
    Chelovek na lune on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Always had a soft spot for this, and still do. It seemed to me, anyway, quite an incongruous number one then. Criticisms: it is rather insubstantial, and some of the lyrics are a bit clunky. Six sounds about right, but definitely a good six.

  6. 6
    iconoclast on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Not my kind of thing at all. It’s pleasant enough in places, but the beats get tiresome before long, and the fade seems to be an admission of defeat. At best a FIVE.

  7. 7
    weej on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Agreed that this sounds like “the future” – i.e. the 21st century – for the first time in Popular history, and it’s not bad all-in-all, pleasantly low-key, nice soap-opera plot behind it, excellent production. I still find it hard to love, though, and not sure why – I’ve come round to similar Aaliyah tracks, but there’s a spark missing for me here. Might stretch to a 6.

  8. 8
    punctum on 21 Apr 2014 #

    She’s his best friend. She talks to him and advises him what to do when he and his girl aren’t getting along, which reading between his lines (“Don’t wanna go/Don’t need to stay”) seems to be quite often. But really it is she he wants, she he has always wanted, so much so that he gets gently accusatory towards her: “Now what’s bad/Is you’re the one who hooked us up/Knowing it should’ve been you.” Women again, eh? You never know where you are with them, do you? *sighs crossly at subtext*

    Throughout the song there is the undercurrent of very good, but unstated, reasons why it shouldn’t have been there, principally in its bipolar internal dialogue – Usher sings the song very calmly with its conversation-as-chorus mumbled nervously (“You make me wanna leave the one I’m with/Start a new relationship with you/This is what you do”) though the strange laughs, “ooh”s and throat clearing which go on beneath suggest an ambiguous mind at the point of collapse; all tactics inaugurated by Marvin, and although Usher addresses the song in a far lower key than the younger Marvin would have done, “You Make Me Wanna…” is in its seemingly modest way a beginning of time; producer Jermaine Dupri keeps the arrangement brewing with vague ominosity, its cut-up acoustic guitar and semi-broken beats the first mainstream nod to the innovations Timbaland was already introducing with Aaliyah and Missy. Not the first nu-R&B single to chart, but certainly the first to make number one and already a galaxy away from B*bby Br*wn, “You Make Me Wanna…” is already making plans for the following century.

  9. 9
    Kinitawowi on 21 Apr 2014 #

    That subtext never goes away with Usher though – Confessions Part 2, in which he finally fesses up to infidelity, sees him thinking that he’s the bigger person for admitting it (and not, say, a lesser one for getting another girl pregnant in the first place).

    That’s all part of why I don’t think much of this. The other part is that I’ve never really got R&B. 3.

  10. 10
    Speedwell54 on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Usher now seems to have quite a line in R & B conversational, confessional and love triangle songs. At the time it was the first that I was aware of, and, it had the killer title line (with ‘leave the one I’m with, start a new relationship’). This could be shallow, but at face value is an awesome statement. 6.

    If your best friend tells you this story, you can empathise and take their point, but at the same time it’s easy to pick to pieces if you’re unsympathetic.

    This track along with a bunnied No1, ‘Love in This Club’, and his vocal on ‘Climax’ all have a hook which I really struggle to find with most of his other stuff.

    Btw this would have be a US number 1 but for ‘Candle’.

  11. 11
    swanstep on 21 Apr 2014 #

    New to me but I am digging it; a real lightning bolt from the future, YMMW could be #1 right now for Pharrell or JT or…. Usher himself. I usually prefer pop that’s more hook-laden than this, but this is a really persuasive piece of atmospherics, timbres fitting beautifully together while also leaving lots of space. Skittering, seductive, intriguing vocals. Overall this is just a better, more human dance music than either New Jack Swing or House. I for one salute the arrival of our new dance overlords:

  12. 12
    MikeMCSG on 21 Apr 2014 #

    I’m not sure whether I heard this at the time or not; not the sort of thing that would make an impression on me then or now but yeah preferable to an out of ideas Oasis.

  13. 13
    ciaran on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Its nearly all ‘6’ records these days innit.

    I would describe this as a ‘before they were famous’ Number 1. Very much out of the blue but a fine record.Even playing it now you’d be forgiven for thinking it was made recently. A lot of depth to it.Nearly worth a 7.

    Back in 1998 it was a surprise for it to hit the top as to me it didn’t feel like a Number 1 for some reason. You can easily imagine it as Top 10 but not a chart topper.More often than not these type of R and B records stalled at No. 2 or below in the mid-90s – Brownstone ‘If You Love Me’ or Toni Braxton ‘Unbreak My heart’ for example and the likes of D’Angelo had only limited success in the UK at this point so YWMW seemed a bit unremarkable but still good.

    At the time I thought one-hit-wonder was written all over him but little did I know that Usher’s imperial phase was soon to come.

  14. 14
    Izzy on 21 Apr 2014 #

    this sounds like “the future” – i.e. the 21st century – for the first time in Popular history

    is a nice way of putting it, except that it’s sixteen years ago and isn’t that a little old to still be sounding like now?

    Anyway it’s a good song and a good sound. I always liked Usher even when I didn’t really know him, he seemed such a charismatic and fun guy. He’d be great to hang out with. I was going to mark it down a point because he’s got better to come, but that’s unfair, it merits an (8).

  15. 15
    Tom on 21 Apr 2014 #

    I don’t think it sounds like now, i.e. 2014. The spare, stuttery R&B sound that Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, the Neptunes, and (here at least) Dupri were doing had a very long, strong, era-defining run and we’ll encounter it a lot, but it was beginning to lose steam well before the end of the 00s. And “U Make Me Wanna” is for me a fairly unformed version of that sound too (though I’m happy it’s been well-received here, bodes well for some great records to come in the 00s)

  16. 16
    Mark M on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Like a lot of people, I find this more exciting for what it foreshadows than for what it is. Also reminds me that in the coming golden age of r&b, I liked tracks with female vocals a lot more than ones with male ones. But we’ll get to that in due course, I guess, and there were obviously exceptions…

  17. 17
    mapman132 on 21 Apr 2014 #

    Another landmark is reached as Usher is probably the first artist we’ve directly encountered here who could still be considered current today (at least in the US). As previously stated, this missed being his first US#1 due to Sir Elton. No matter: “Nice & Slow” would hit #1 in the spring and be the first of well…ever looked at the list of US number ones in 2004? I mean, come on, he’s not THAT great….

    So Usher would eventually become chart enemy #1 for me for a time. To be fair, anyone who dominated the Hot 100 that way would’ve grown to annoy me – I suspect I would’ve hated the mockery the Beatles made of the 1964 chart had I been alive at the time, and there’s another group who would outlast their welcome in 2009…

    However, now that Usher’s US chart performance has calmed back to reasonable levels, I realize he really wasn’t/isn’t so bad. Going back to 1998, “You Make Me Wanna” was a decent breakthough single, and despite not being an R&B person, I can’t find much objectively wrong with it, so it gets my default score in these cases: 5/10.

    PS: In retrospect, surprising this wasn’t “U Make Me Wanna”.

  18. 18
    Ed on 21 Apr 2014 #

    I didn’t remember this at all, but it’s a great record. Not quite his finest hour – that’s a bunny that is some way off – but still pretty awe-inspiring for the artistry and skill with which it’s put together.

    As Lonepilgrim and Weej said, it’s the sound of the future: a blast of the 21st century breaking through into the Popular story back in 1998. The Golden Age of R&B was the future then, even if it is fading into the past now.

    I think Tom is right about why it still sounds so radical in this context: it’s a breakthrough at the top of the UK chart for state-of-the-art US R&B, which was light years ahead of what British pop was capable of at the time. As the old saying goes, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

    It’s a reminder of the staggering reserves of talent in American music, and black music in particular, in the same way that Motown exposed the weakness of British pop in the early 1960s. All Saints are struggling to keep up, but still a long way behind, and the Spice Girls and Oasis just seem quaint. Britain feels like a rather parochial, backward little island when you listen to this.

    One conclusion is that pop is just one of those areas where the US has a comparative advantage, like the Germans with cars or the French with cheese. Put, say, ‘Never Ever’ up against ‘You Makes Me Wanna…’, and it’s like matching a Rover 400 against a BMW. I think I am right that this was an issue that was really starting to worry the British record industry at the time, especially after the ‘Be Here Now’ debacle.

    (Britain’s comparative advantage, it is sometimes said, is in the “bullshit industries”: banking, law, accountancy, advertising, journalism. British pop careers from Andrew Loog Oldham to Simon Cowell certainly seem to bear that out.)

  19. 19
    swanstep on 22 Apr 2014 #

    @Tom, 15. Good point. If this were #1 now, it would be a deliberately old school gesture (probably from a synoptic figure like Pharrell); a sop to the masses who still moan on youtube about needing someone to bring sexy back, how Destiny’s Child should reform, how ‘Jumpin Jumpin”s their jam, etc..

  20. 20
    weej on 22 Apr 2014 #

    #14 – Yes, by “the 21st century” here I mean the first decade (we still don’t have a satisfactory name for it, but let’s call it “the 2000s” – anyone calling it “the noughties” deserves a stern tutting) – that Timbaland / Neptunes sound is already history now, but only just about (have a listen to the Timbaland remix of YMMW on Youtube to hear the next decade already seemingly fully formed)

    An interesting thing for me here is the contrast between Plucky British Amateurness and Polished American Professionalism – it seems like one or the other is forever being held as a model in UK music, but artists that follows either idea too far end up producing, respectively, sentimental parochial wank and soul-less plastic pastiche, neither of which do well on the other side of the Atlantic. The interesting bits seem to happen somewhere in the middle of this tension, or by sidestepping it somehow.

  21. 21
    James BC on 22 Apr 2014 #

    I was never a big fan of that ‘mumbling under the song’ sound – the only one I like that springs to mind is Thong Song. The TOTP performances in that genre were often notably terrible: the song playing in the background while the singer danced about and intermittently yelled ‘Hey!’.

    I like a lot of Usher’s later stuff, though.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 22 Apr 2014 #

    Not convinced by this idea that this song is a strong example of early/pre-GoldenAge (which I don’t quite buy the idea of either as it devalues much good stuff within the ten years prior) R&B ‘futurism’. It’s conventional for the time and the rhythm only vaguely aligns it with what Timbaland became a figurehead for, only without being as exciting as Aaliyah’s ‘Are You That Somebody?’, SWV’s ‘Can We’, Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ and numerous other earlier hits. It strikes me that ‘You Make Me Wanna’ outperformed them all specifically by taking fewer risks. 5.

  23. 23
    Tom on 22 Apr 2014 #

    #22 Yes, I like it more than Steve but this is what I meant in the review by “on-trend” – this isn’t exactly the future of R&B, it’s the present, it’s just very little of the exciting stuff is reaching Britain. (Though I think “Are You That Somebody?” postdates this single – we got Usher a bit later than the US did). By the end of 1998 the Timbaland-style sound is pretty much the mainstream, so it’s not exactly a 21st century sound either.

    And re. #18, the burst of creativity in American R&B is well paralleled by developments in British pop – though like rave in the early 90s, UK Garage frustratingly camped out in the Top 10 without making it to #1 enough. The key difference isn’t the creativity, it’s the infrastructure (so your comparison to Britain’s manufacturing woes isn’t far off!). As Chris Molanphy detailed in his recent epic piece on the US R&B/HipHop charts, there is – or at least was – a whole parallel infrastructure designed to support black music in America: circuits and channels by which local creativity and new talent can reach a national audience (and then potentially crossover to the Billboard charts, but that isn’t always the goal or a useful measure of quality). The UK has never had that to such an extent, and I think it becomes a particularly pressing issue in the 00s.

  24. 24
    Billy Hicks on 22 Apr 2014 #

    I would say it’s about 2001 when the charts really catch up to this and the US R&B appears by the bucketload, but there’s the occasional track like this to come before then.

    Other than the odd bit of brilliance I’ve never been a fan of this sound at all sadly – it’s dull, irritating, slightly pretentious and to me it’s what would later move me away from the charts as a mid-noughties teenager and immerse myself in lots of underground dance music instead – mostly trance – until things finally moved back to a sound I enjoyed in 2009. Can’t really give it a 1 as it’s not doing anything really offensively bad (unlike many to come) but can’t give it anymore than a 2.

  25. 25
    hardtogethits on 22 Apr 2014 #

    I’m with those above who think this broke new ground. I think it’s rare to hear a song of this genre* or era** whose attempts to connect are expressed only emotionally, not physically. And better still for it being written in the second person.

    It’s polite, open and honest.

    There’s something additionally great about the avoidance of cliche and vulgar metaphor. Oh mama, the things he coulda been singing here – but not a bit of it. A new relationship is what he wants. And does that amount to infidelity? Well, he’s in an awkward position, isn’t he? He can’t pursue a relationship, and go back where he came from if it doesn’t work out. The easiest thing to do would be to say nothing/do nothing, to continue with the present situation and not disclose his thoughts on the future – thus giving himself time to see how he feels subsequently. The second easiest would be to stay with the one he’s with and see less (or indeed maybe no more at all) of this lass. But he went with the difficult option. I hope whatever happened after he*** opened his heart, he*** ended up happy.

    Terrific. 10.

    * ** I’m seeking not to specify these – the reader can decide, but it’s not 50s balladry or early 60s rock’n’roll.
    *** the central character, played by Usher.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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?

  30. 30
    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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 33
    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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 36
    General Bounce on 27 Sep 2019 #

    I bloody hate this record. From what I recall, Usher’s *thing* when this was being pushed pre-release was to slowly strip down to his boxers as the song went on and most people my age at the time just described it as “that song where the singer takes his clothes off”.

  37. 37
    Gareth Parker on 10 May 2021 #

    Yeah, not bad at all in my view. I’m happy to go along with Tom’s 6/10 in this case.

  38. 38
    Mr Tinkertrain on 5 Apr 2022 #

    Christ, I hate this song. Indeed, I don’t like this sort of R&B at all and Usher is not one of the better purveyors of the form, but this is particularly dull and boring and barely even offers a memorable chorus. It can have 3/10, mostly because I know that there are worse Usher bunnies not yet covered.

    If this was “the future” and Oasis was “the past”, then I guess, even as a 12 year-old in 1998, I was a dinosaur. And I’m fine with that.

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