GG‘s Number Ones column reviews every Billboard Hot 100 #1 single of the last 10 years.
Nothing lasts forever. And when it comes to transient things, pop careers are no exception. Usher is a fitting example.
The Rise of Usher
On Valentines Day in 1998, Usher topped the US singles chart with ‘Nice & Slow‘. By 2004 he was a verified superstar. His first three albums sold six million copies. His blockbuster fourth, Confessions, sold more than a million in a single week.
It would go on to sell another 10 million, not to mention four Number One singles. A small pop-culture phenomenon in itself, Confessions was the second highest-selling record of the decade. And with its release, Usher became one of the most successful pop artists the world had ever known.
“This is just the beginning,” Usher boldly proclaimed to Rolling Stone in 2004. It seemed like he was invincible. Surely, he could do it again?
Usher’s Reality Check
The reality check of Usher’s underperforming 2008 album Here I Stand was a shock. Confessions had given Usher four hit singles. Here I Stand had given him only one. Here I Stand only sold roughly a tenth of copies of Confessions.
Usher’s 2010 follow-up Raymond v Raymond and the singles which followed didn’t leave anything to chance. Usher’s reputation was on the line. He was no longer 25 years old as he had been at the time of Confessions, but 31. He had recently divorced his wife Tameka Foster. Usher needed a comeback.
‘OMG’ was a single calculated to take Usher to the top of the charts. The song tapped into the zeitgeist. Texting was all the rage in 2009 and The Black Eyed Peas’ previous chart-topper ‘Imma Be‘ had demonstrated an enormous public demand for pop songs built around abbreviated words. The concept was sound, and Usher had the reputation to promote it.
What Does ‘OMG’ Mean?
“Oh my God,” reads the entry for the expression Dictionary.com, “is an exclamation variously expressing disbelief, frustration, excitement, or anger. Its abbreviation, OMG, is widely used in digital communication.” The website theorises the abbreviation became popular due to the character limits placed on text messages on mobile phones. An earlier expression, “Oath my god” has been in use since 1304.
The expression of a combination of dismay, frustration, and astonishment applies perfectly to the extreme emotions that arise in Usher’s story. The surprise appearance of his ideal woman on the dance floor initially catches him off guard. He instantly falls in love yet is frustrated that they are not together. Finding the confidence to approach her he is then surprised by their instant chemistry. It is all too good to be true.
What comes after equally surpasses expectation. The acknowledgment of a higher power, in this case, God, denotes a feeling of fate. The abbreviation, which entered into everyday speech by the time Usher released ‘OMG’ in 2010, of course, makes it hip.
The Making of ‘OMG’
‘OMG’ was written and produced by Will.i.am. The Black Eyed Peas’ mastermind had worked with Usher on 2008 single ‘What’s Your Name’. In terms of theme, the song followed closely to the formula set out in the Black Eyed Peas own 2009 hit single ‘Imma Be’. Sonically the song is very similar to The Peas’ 2009 hit ‘Boom Boom Pow‘. In fact, ‘OMG’ samples a portion of the single.
‘OMG’ is not notable for its originality. “Anything you make,” Will.i.am shared with MTV program The Seven, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Will wasn’t striving for originality, but functionality.
The song echoed the story of Usher’s best-known song ‘Yeah!‘. ‘OMG’ was an effort to recapture the swaggering persona he had seduced his millions of fans in ages past. Once again Usher was in the club chasing after a beautiful woman.
Usher was more than aware his new material was returning to several familiar themes. “With Raymond v Raymond,” he shared with one publication, “I’m coming back to what people know me for. If you bring back what people loved about you and remind them nothing’s changed, then they’re right back where they were before… Based on what happened with ‘Confessions’, why wouldn’t I feel like, ‘Let’s try that again’?”
Shorties in Tha Club
Usher makes reference to his love interest as “shorty”. A popular slang term in the 2000s, derived from a Black American expression used to affectionately refer to a young and inexperienced man. Replacing the word “sugar”, it later evolved to instead refer to a beautiful woman. The expression was popularised by Lil Wayne, Flo Rida, T-Pain, 50 Cent, and, of course, Usher. As slang terms are not typically subject to feminist approval, many who use the term probably never realised it was a little misogynistic.
‘OMG’ Put Usher Back on Top
“All art is entertainment,” movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote, “but not all entertainment is art.” ‘OMG’ was no masterpiece but it did what it had to do. In fact, in the hands of another artist, it might even be considered a throwaway. For Usher, it got him back on top. After 12 years he was once again a hitmaker. If just for a moment.
‘OMG’ was Usher’s ninth Number One US hit on the Billboard 100. Chart watchers noted this made Usher the first artist to top the US singles chart in both the ’90s, noughties and 2010s. Usher’s career had stretched across three decades, a feat matched only by Madonna and Janet Jackson, whose own releases had topped the charts in the ’80s, ’90s, and noughties. ‘OMG’ quickly overtook the previous three singles from Raymond v Raymond, ‘Papers’, ‘Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)’, and ‘Lil Freak‘. It also shot to the top in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom.
With the success of ‘OMG’, Usher also became the third artist in history to have a Number One song from five consecutive studio albums. (The other two being Micheal Jackson and Paul McCartney.) It was a record he had barely held onto long enough to achieve. Nonetheless, it was a testament to his longevity. Most artists to grace the charts never have a single Number One, let alone five.
The King is Dead
No one can see what comes next. At age 31 Usher was once again King of R&B. Then came Drake. Following the release of Usher’s Richard v Richard, a young up and comer named Drake topped the album charts with the debut album Thank Me Later on June 15. As the new decade progressed Drake would take a firmer and firmer hold of the Billboard singles charts with his own smooth take on R&B, pop, and hip hop. Then, in 2018, Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’ broke Usher’s 14-year record for most consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. Drake had become the new king of R&B.
As far as Usher’s musical career was concerned, pop culture had moved on. The persona Usher had cultivated as the smooth-talking Casanova of the clubs simply did not cut it. R&B fans still wanted a heartthrob, just someone a little more introspective.
(Usher also had no hard feelings towards Drake, with whom he collaborated on the 2014 single ‘UR’. “He’s an extremely talented man,” Usher told MTV News. Unfortunately, the track, which was slated to appear on Usher’s eighth studio album Hard II Love, never made the cut. It leaked online in early 2020.)
What Came Next After ‘OMG’
With Richard v Richard and subsequent albums, Usher either lapsed too deeply into self-parody or failed to strike a chord with more confessional numbers. What fans wanted was to connect with something real. Usher had tried to address his divorce and relationship with tabloids on Richard v Richard tracks like ‘Papers’ but the same year of the single’s release newer acts like Rihanna were digging deeper to deliver albums such as Rated R – a record which documented the 20-year-old pop star’s domestic abuse by another of Usher’s R&B successors Chris Brown.
This simply wasn’t the kind of material that played to Usher’s strengths. It is no small irony the man who had written ‘Confessions’ was now not confessional enough to satisfy the changing demands of a modern audience. Usher’s read-in-between-the-lines lyrics and danceable pop seem dated next to the facts-laid-bare tone pop’s artists began taking. Usher was in a bind. His pop material was too superficial, his confessional material not confessional enough. ‘OMG’ demonstrated Usher could still land hits but no longer was he on the mark.
Did Usher care? A multimillionaire in 2010 (Usher is currently worth an estimated $180 million US) the desire to be on top may simply have not been an immediate concern. In 1993 a teenage Usher had begun recording hit songs, he was now 31 and a father of two. “I’ll choose to be on a stage if I want,” Usher shared, reflecting on his future at the time of the album’s release. “But in terms of future albums, I’ll just get there when I get there.”
Oh my gosh, this one hasn’t dated well. ‘OMG’ gave Usher another win (albeit his last) as a singles artist. Despite his reputation as a chart-topper, his albums continued to perform respectably. His seventh Looking for Myself climbed to Number One in the US in 2012 and Hard II Love hit Number Five in 2016.
Usher himself continued to enjoy success outside of the charts. Becoming a regular presence on pop idol program The Voice, he would also mentor several up and coming artists (not least amongst them, Justin Bieber). He would also build a lifestyle brand and promote luxury watches. In addition to this, he would also continue to pursue his acting career – something which had been paralleling his musical work since the late ’90s. Usher held on to his superstar persona even though he no longer had the mantle of king.
Peak Chart Positions
US/Billboard 100: #1 (16 weeks on chart)
Australia/ARIA: #1 (6 weeks on chart)
UK/Official Charts: #1 (35 weeks on chart)
A handy abbreviation
Put Usher back on top
Suitable for airplay at large events
Earlier material was better
Women don't need to be "broken down"