“Authenticity never made much sense really. All that is real is what is in front of us, if the satisfaction is absolute” —Venita Blackburn
Confession is personal. To admit and share secrets is an act of unveiling. The openness of his fourth studio album is why the man born Usher Raymond IV decided to title the record Confessions. He saw in the songs fragments of his intimate life, like the selective reflection from pieces of a shattered mirror. Usher invited listeners into a closet knowing they would view his skeletons with gavels in hand. This gesture of show-and-tell was to create a stronger, more personal connection between fans and the admired heartthrob who was becoming a staple in R&B.
Usher chose wisely, making the album’s title track a song about confessing to infidelity. The conversational-style ballad frames a moment between two lovers that is more candid than any relationship filmed for reality television. “Confessions” and the superior “Confessions, Pt. II” are about hard truths and apologetic revelations, the mistakes of lust and how they can affect the one you love. I was 13 in 2004, the year of Confessions, but even as an inexperienced adolescent, the heartfelt play-by-play was emotionally touching. Usher didn’t simply confess to doing wrong, he perfectly translated the feelings of anxiety, shame, and disappointment.
Some songs are able to capture a circumstance so well, it becomes second nature to conclude the inspiration came from experience. My mind assumed that to make “Confessions” meant Usher had to live as the lyrics described. In 2003, prior to the release of Confessions, Usher and his longtime girlfriend, TLC singer Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, ended their two-year relationship. Cheating was the rumored cause of their separation before Confessions hit stores, which was touted as a diary of their end after 10 million copies were sold worldwide. My assumptions reflected the general consensus about Usher, Chilli, and Confessions as a masterpiece of dirty laundry. He did it, and we were all sure of it.
Except he didn’t. Well, not exactly.
The inspiration behind “Confessions, Pt. II” comes from a real place, but it’s pulled from the life of co-writer Jermaine Dupri. Countless interviews with Usher, Dupri, and even Thomas have attempted to debunk the false narratives to no avail. The single was too massive; the album was a spectacle of itself. After all the radio station debates and gossip columnist tall tales, no truth was loud enough to correct what was accepted as a fact. It’s still common after 14 years to find fans of “Confessions” who aren’t aware of the song’s real muse.
There’s a knee-jerk perception that personal lyrics always connect back to an artist’s life. Hip-hop’s unwavering attitude toward realness raised a generation to hear music with the expectation of authentic truth. Usher’s infidelity sounded believable, as convincing as Kanye West’s relatives on “Family Business.” The College Dropout deep cut is rapped with a tender, heartfelt sincerity. There’s an irresistible warmth to the record; it’s like being invited to a reunion and hearing West speak candidly of his kin. Surprisingly, the lyrics aren’t based on anyone who shares blood with the versatile Chicago rapper. What seemed to be an easy interpretation turned out to be a complete misconception.
Each and every song ever recorded has a secret. There will always be added context that an artist knows that may never be revealed to fans. Filled with mystery, this gap allows for an open interpretation each time play is pressed. Fans are able to create their own meaning and analysis just based on their understanding. This creates a personal relationship with an idea of what could be, thus making two separate versions of how songs can be interpreted.
In his final profile with Vulture, the late, great Mac Miller briefly touched upon the different responses to his music. Rather than label them right or wrong, he allows fan perspective to exist free of his authority. It’s not the truth, but the lack thereof is theirs to cherish.
"I have noticed that, as far as headlines and people listening to the music and taking them into account, and applying them to the music. But … I’ve also not talked about what songs mean, what’s this or what’s that. I’ve just kind of left it up to interpretation." —Mac Miller
Vince Staples took a similar stance throughout the rollout of Big Fish Theory, his critically acclaimed third studio album. During an interview with Trevor Noah, the Long Beach enigma compared the confidentiality of his project’s theme to how art galleries display paintings without explanation. Part of the experience of viewing the art is assessing what is observed. The intent of his secrecy was to create room for imaginative dissection. Instead of worrying about being right or wrong, the focus was to look through a personal lens and conclude what Staples conveyed. If the album’s rollout began with a concise breakdown, then there would be no incentive to work through the maze of his work.
It's easy for music to become a matter of fact. Not all clarity is necessary; there’s beauty in the unknown and abstract. Too many answers and not enough speculation can dry away the thrill of examination. Yet, clarity can change how a song sounds. I still remember the chills of hearing Noname’s “Bye Bye Baby” for the first time. It’s a soft, compassionate song themed around an abortion.
Noname raps with a motherly tone, the heavy goodbye whisper to a child unborn. It is by far one of the most touching records found on her debut mixtape, Telefone. But what made the sweet ode to mothers so striking was hearing the lyrics and thinking they were drawn from Noname’s reality. The concept was rooted in realism, but the Chicago woman born Fatimah Warner wasn’t actually pulling from her reality. As she told The FADER, "...People think I'm talking about my own personal experience. THat's not what that song is. It's a personification of a mother who has had an abortion, and the baby." “Bye Bye Baby” is still a beautifully heavy song, but it became a bit lighter once listeners learned Noname wasn’t carrying the burden.
In 2015, I wrote about Kendrick Lamar and a possible murder based on lyrics from his discography and comments that he made during an interview with MTV. As one of hip-hop’s most thoughtful writers, Lamar raps every line with purpose and intent. Not a single bar is wasted. Through his words, the dots connected and formed a theory about a traumatic event he has alluded to since changing his name from K.Dot. Did Kendrick actually kill a man? Is he carrying the guilt of his action through his music?
Now, this wasn’t a police investigation but rather a thorough dissection of overlapping narratives and repeated motifs. Maybe he did commit the act, and he has used music as a tool to repent. Or maybe, like Noname, Kanye, and Usher, Lamar is confessing from the place of a vessel and not a person of secrets. We may never know and I prefer it that way.
Knowing the truth behind what inspired an artist is a reward. The creative mind is a secured vault that is rarely opened to the public. Thanks to social media and good journalism, listeners are allowed glimpses but never a chance to explore the entire safe haven where ideas are born. As a journalist, I'm required to seek out the truth, to uncover and unveil. That will always matter in the music industry. But in an age of information, annotation, and the constant search for secrets, there’s something refreshing about maintaining a sense of uncertainty, to be in the position where your naïve guesses are nothing more than that. No validation. No confirmation. Just the wonderment of possibilities. That’s where the childlike joy of music as an art form exists: where the abstract reigns and the poetic license allows creativity to be unbound. It’s where there are two versions of every song. How you see it and how it was made to be seen; sometimes it’s better when the two don't overlap.
As Kendrick once said, ignorance is bliss.
By Yoh, aka Yohfessions, aka @Yoh31
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