After spending the ’90s as one of the country’s top teenage R&B sweethearts, full of uncompromising hormones and temptation, USHER reemerged in 2001 with his third studio album, 8701—his first artistic offering as a non-teenager. And with that new milestone came music that detailed the experiences of a young man who was starting to see the ups and downs of the prospective love that he’d passionately sought out up to this point. The album’s lead single “U Remind Me,” with its fluttering chords, finds USHER mesmerized by a potential lover, but her similarities to an ex that broke his heart sours his attraction. Over faint acoustic guitar, “U Got It Bad” captures the tension of a topsy-turvy love where petty, explosive arguments turn into longing for resolution. USHER’s conviction in moments like these suggests that he’s pulling from a real place, but the album isn’t just delightful because he’s more seasoned in terms of heartache. Some of 8701’s marquee moments place you squarely in the center of an intensely lit dance floor, hazy from sweat and mist. “I Don’t Know,” for instance, features a barrage of intergalactic synths from The Neptunes while Diddy offers some conversational swaggering, and USHER’s angelic falsetto adds dimension; it’s the kind of song that you run back a few times to focus on a different element of its DNA. The swing and funk interwoven into the production of “Good Ol’ Ghetto” channels the butter-smooth personas of Southern heavyweights of the day like 8Ball & MJG or UGK. More than any of his albums before it, 8701 framed an USHER for the future, an artist who’d developed all the necessary tools during his early years but was now ready to crystallize those into something full-proof.

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