Before sprouting into one of the most important R&B singers of our time, Usher Raymond was a fresh-faced kid from Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose family moved to Atlanta to give him a chance at pursuing his dreams of being a professional recording artist. After wowing crowds and record industry executives at a string of talent showcases, he was signed to LaFace Records, and the early results of his time learning under L.A. Reid, Babyface, and Diddy was his self-titled debut in 1994. “I decided around the age of 12, 13 that this is what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing,” USHER told Apple Music’s Estelle in 2022. “And I really left it in the hands of someone else to kind of curate what that beginning was.” At just 15 years old at the time of its release, the voice we’ve come to love had yet to develop. Instead, the album was filled with earnest light-voiced crooning about the adolescent pursuit of love, over production that achieved the perfect blend of boom-bap rap and soul music. “I’ll Make It Right” is a promise from USHER to a love interest that he’ll do whatever is necessary to secure their long-term affection. On “Think of You” he teases early flashes of his career-long ability to execute convincing tales of heartbreak, situations in which his love clearly wasn’t enough to keep a partner satisfied. And then on the slow brooding “Smile Again” he lends his shoulder to a girl torn up about a guy who took her for granted. The ’90s were filled with promising teenage acts that went on to be generationally influential. At the same time USHER was finding his way, Monica was stunning crowds, Aaliyah defined what we now understand as effortless cool, Brandy had pipes beyond her years, and groups like Immature had a stranglehold on youth culture. But still, there was something about the conviction in a young USHER’s voice that suggested he might be able to find his own space within a crowd of formative competitors. All throughout his introduction to the world here, he delivered on the promise of his potential before going on to sustain a legendary career.

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