UsherWhen Usher set out to write and record his fourth album, he decided he wanted to blend traditional R&B and elements of jazz that informed R&B in the 1940s with the modern, post-Michael Jackson R&B style for which he was well known. He ended up veering into hip-hop too, and the resulting album – “Confessions,” released in 2004 – was a stylish, thoroughly engaging recording that profited not only from the singer’s versatile voice, which ranges effortlessly to falsetto from his natural tenor, and a meticulous approach to music by Usher and several producers, but also from a bit of intrigue in the lyrics.

Usher, the stage name of Usher Terry Raymond IV, broke through with his second album, 1997’s “My Way,” which gave birth to three hit singles. The follow-up studio album, “8701,” was also a hit and won two Grammys as Best R&B Pop Vocal Performance for the singles “U Remind Me” and “U Don’t Have To Call.” (Curiously, he won in two different years for songs that appeared on the same album.) His trajectory still on the rise, Usher began work on what became “Confessions” in 2003 with Jermaine Dupri, who had produced his two previous studio albums.

It’s been reported that Usher turned in 40 songs to his label, but its head, L.A. Reid, thought the overall package was insufficient. Back in the studio, Usher cut “Red Light” and “Yeah!” with Ludacris and Lil Jon, Atlanta-based rappers who brought an edge to the singer’s music. Following a brief, mellow spoken-word intro that featured an acoustic guitar and gentle percussion, “Yeah!” opened the album with a jolt: A bold, mid-‘80s synthesizer line filled the air as Lil Jon woofed until Usher entered escorted by handclaps and chiming bells. The Atlanta rappers called the style of hip-hop “crunk” and the track, produced by Lil Jon and mega-hitmaker Sean Garrett, served to announce that Usher, for all his prior success, was willing to take on something different.

Built on a great drum pattern, “Throwback” was vintage Usher – a crying R&B ballad with layered voices and a electric-guitar riff sampled from Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me” – matched with prodding by chanting rapper Jadakiss. It served as prelude to an ad-hoc suite that came to define the album: “Confessions,” “Confessions Pt. II” and “Burn,” songs about cheating and the aftermath of romantic betrayal.

In a modern R&B environment, with scatty percussion and delicately applied keyboards and guitars, he sang in “Confessions”: “Everything I’ve been doing is all bad/I’ve got a chick on the side with a crib and a ride/…Every time you called I told you ‘Baby I’m working’/I was out doing my dirt.” Another wallop in “Pt. II”: “’Bout that chick on part one I told you I was creepin’ with/Said she’s three months pregnant and she’s keeping it.” Usher begged his partner to forgive him, but in “Burn,” he stated that she moved on: “Now I know it’s too late/She ain’t coming back/…I’m gonna be burning until you return.”

Because he had a well-publicized split with his partner Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas of TLC., some fans took the songs to be autobiographical, and many among them weren’t pleased. Usher was compelled to address the controversy. He said the songs were based on friends’ experiences; later, producer Dupri, who co-wrote “Confessions Pt. II” and “Burn,” admitted the situation described in the songs were about his love life. Despite the protest, “Burn” reached the top slot on many countries’ singles charts. In the U.S., “Burn” followed “Yeah!” as the number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In fact, those two Usher singles held the top position for 19 consecutive weeks.

Following the ad-hoc suite, “Caught” profited from crackling percussion and slow-burning brass produced by the team of Dre & Vidal, who had worked with Jill Scott, among others. The duo produced “Superstar,” a honey sweet bit of R&B with Usher at his soul-crooning best. Moving on from Dre & Vidal, “Confessions” presented next four consecutive tracks co-written and co-produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, including the smooth, upbeat “Truth Hurts” that echoed their work with Janet and Michael Jackson, and “Bad Girls” that had crunchy rock chords on electric guitar at its spine. The simmering “Can U Handle It?” was golden ‘70s soul topped by a gorgeous falsetto vocal. As if in tribute to that era’s sound, “Take Your Hand” sampled Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Is There A Place For Me?”

“Confessions” wasn’t only Usher’s most successful album, it was also one of the most successful albums of the century, selling more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. Its artistic and commercial success of “Confessions” propelled Usher to superstardom. He’s sold some 65 million albums worldwide. “Confessions” is his best work. Not for its sordid, distracting subplot, but for Usher’s easy authority as an R&B vocalist who proved at ease in a mix of related settings.