Usher “Don’t leave your girl around me” Raymond is the only artist worthy of wearing the crown left by the late Michael Jackson. There, it’s said!! Sure, it’s okay to get upset because many—like you—have snarled at any comparison to the greatness of Moonwalk Mike.
Michael Jackson was so great he transformed into a glow-eyed werewolf and a Soul Train zombie in one video. He traveled back in time to flirt with an African Queen in FRONT of the King! Michael had a sea of people in arena stadiums passing out BEFORE singing a note. At his prime, Michael Jackson’s reign is undisputed, but the King is dead, so long live the King—and may his name be Usher, baby.
SIDENOTE: For those who feel Chris Brown is a contender, to see why that’s a half-baked argument, please check out my article, “Chris Brown VS Usher: A Battle of Greats.”
Looking 4 Myself
To understand why Usher is next-up to Michael Jackson is to understand the parallels to their musical origin stories. After discovering his talent at age nine, Usher’s mom put him in the church youth choir and a young R&B group competing in multiple talent shows in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Later, seeking more opportunities for his talent, Usher’s family moved to the Motown of the South—aka Atlanta, Georgia—where Usher met his Barry Gordy, aka LA Reid, co-founder of LaFace Records.
After performing for musical legend LA Reid, a then fourteen-year-old Usher signed his first major record deal and later dropped a self-titled debut album. With songs like “Can U Get Wit It”, “Think of You”, and “The Many Ways,” Usher came off as a Bobby Brown mini-me. The album had a below-average impact. If he was going to get anywhere near greatness, then Usher, like Michael, would have to recruit a new-millennium, Southern version of Quincy Jones.
Take Your Hand
By age eighteen, Jermaine “JD” Dupri was already a successful producer and songwriter with his discovery of the teen sensation, Hip Hop duo Kriss Kross. He later started So So Def Records, where he pioneered the careers of Xscape, Da Brat, and more. Dupri instantly realized the challenge of working with Usher at their first meeting. “He had acne, he had no muscles, voice was changing,” he told the Steve Harvey Show. “We worked on basically all that to get right.”The right was Usher’s sophomore release album “My Way.”
The lead single from Usher’s “My Way” was the guitar-led, up-tempo “You Make Me Wanna,” where he side-moonwalked, danced with a chair, and sang about a crush on another girl while having a girlfriend. Unlike its predecessor, which contained adult, sexual song vocals from a middle-schooler, the themes in “May Way” had a mature sound that fit perfectly for the nineteen-year-old Usher. When mentioning the classic record “Nice & Slow,” Jermaine Dupri considers the ballad a game-changer when speaking to the Recording Academy, calling it “The beginning of a different sound of R&B.”
Don’t Waste My Time
The rebirth of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, who now lived as Usher and Jermaine Dupri, would continue to blossom on the follow-up to “My Way”, the third album titled “8701.” As a full adult, Usher created a break-up musical trilogy with “U Remind Me”, “U Got It Bad”, and “U Don’t Have to Call.” His fans, who had also grown into adulthood, watched each cinematic music video play out as art imitated life with Usher’s then girlfriend, Chilli of TLC.
With three albums in his arsenal, Usher was a solidified R&B star. What came next was that one masterpiece which can elevate a musical artist to legendary status—the one Thriller’ish album that would separate Usher from his contemporaries, putting him miles apart and placing him on a path toward Michael Jackson’s crown.
Usher’s “Confessions” album is not on the same level as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—but it is its offspring. An album like “Confessions” is a true artist’s signature work. The album made Usher a global icon who existed everywhere in real-time. “Yeah” featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris conquered the clubs, “Confessions pt. 2” played like a soap opera cliffhanger, and “Burn” was rooted with enough emotion to create thug tears.
Hard II Love
Unfortunately, the magnitude of Usher’s “Confessions” placed him in the same lane as “Thriller” did Michael Jackson, where no follow-up album could measure up. Despite this, Usher’s career continued successfully throughout the years with hit records such as “OMG”, “There Goes My Baby”, “Love in This Club”, “Climax”, “Lovers & Friends”, and more. Plus, Usher sharing the stage in a semi-dance battle with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, was epic.
Usher’s existence was always relevant but only sometimes appreciated. “I’m a little disappointed at how the public handles him (Usher) because he’s special,” says producer/songwriter Bryan-Michael Cox on the Premium Pete Show podcast. “He sold five million ‘My Way’ records. He sold seven million ‘8701’ records. He sold ten million ‘Confessions’ records. He’s the only artist, the last artist, BLACK artist to go diamond in the past twenty years.” For a brief consideration, Cox’s statement represented the possibility that Michael Jackson’s crown was unattainable and that Usher’s legacy could die slowly. This statement might’ve become true…until Tiny Desk.
NPR Music’s Tiny Desk is a video music series where artists such as Anderson Paak., Charlie Wilson, Megan THEE Stallion, the late Mac Miller, Scarface, and others perform in an MTV Unplugged band style in front of a small audience. The show’s popularity has spread with its snippets on social media platforms, bringing together large-scale fans from all over digital space.
Here I Stand
Usher’s performance on Tiny Desk was a masterclass in legend. The high vocal note at the beginning of Superstar, the viral moment of “Watch This,” and the women screaming in reaction to his singing the “One Second Baby,” line from “Confessions,” became a euphoric moment of nostalgia. The surge from Tiny Desk elevated a desire for more fans to see his performance residency in Las Vegas, which went on to create its own internet moments.
The greatness of Michael Jackson is a height that no living artist—human or alien—could surpass in this lifetime. The spiritual ceiling is too high, and the goalpost moves at lightning speed. Yet, a crown is not for a ruler’s past but his present, and Usher is an artist whose legacy makes him throne-worthy. His dance moves are not as innovative as Jackson’s, but Usher does have a signature. Usher doesn’t have an album that has commercially performed like “Thriller,” but his music has connected culturally. Like Michael, Usher’s core audience grew up with him, creating a marriage between artist and fan. Usher is the heir to Michael—not as the same King, but the next one.