In 1994, Usher released his self-titled debut album. At the time, he was just 15 years old. It didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, but three years later, he returned with a bang with the hugely popular My Way. Since then, he’s become one of the best selling music artists of all time, shifting over 100 million albums worldwide, earning nine No. 1 singles, and picking up 8 Grammy Awards. Here’s how we rank all 8 Usher albums from worst to best.
8. Hard II Love
Hard II Love is exactly what it says on the label. If the fault of Usher’s debut was that it was too mature for a 15-year-old to handle, here, it’s the opposite problem. Songs like Let Me and Make U A Believer sound like the work of an 8th grader, while there’s something distinctly unsettling about hearing a 40-year puffing and panting his way through the obscenity-laden FMW. There are a few glorious moments (Tell Me and Missing U, in particular), but sadly, not enough to keep the album afloat.
Usher’s self-titled debut didn’t get a lot of love at the time of its release. Much of that had to do with the embarrassment of listening to a 15-year-old singing about sex. Usher’s strength as a songwriter has always been in creating stories that sound like they really happened (or at least, could really happen). For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen here, and the album failed to deliver the commercial success the label was hoping for. All that aside, it’s still an astonishing debut, with a supremely promising (if not fully realized) blend of R&B and hip hop soul. Usher would go on to make far better records, but the seeds of greatness were sown here.
6. Raymond v. Raymond
Despite having a stellar team of producers and writers on board, Raymond v. Raymond received a lukewarm reception on its release in 2010. Certain critics didn’t like its songwriting, while others liked its themes even less. NME called it “a bit of forgettable bravado babble.” Slant Magazine was even more scathing, describing it as “consistently uninspired.” In retrospect, it probably didn’t deserve anything like as much bad press as it got. It’s not particularly inspiring, but Usher’s vocals are as strong as ever, and there’s plenty of great moments to be found in the deep cuts.
5. Looking 4 Myself
It’s not hard to find stellar songs on Looking 4 Myself. Dive, Sins of My Father, What Happened to U, Lemme See, Climax… all outstanding tracks, and all ones that demand a listen. But the album as a whole doesn’t quite come together. It took a roasting on its release in 2012, with fans lamenting Usher’s newly poppy direction. Not all of the criticism was justified, but there’s no denying that Usher’s experiments with different genres aren’t completely successful. There’s almost too much creativity on display, leaving the listener slightly confused and just a little nervous about which direction they’ll be pulled in next. Still, the songwriting is solid, the production is airtight, and you have to give Usher kudos for being brave enough to take a risk.
4. Here I Stand
Next up is Here I Stand, an album that Vogue describes as one of Usher’s most underrated albums. Prior to its release in 2008, Usher married stylist Tameka Foster, an event that injected a new sense of maturity into his music. For some fans, the shift into the adult contemporary sphere was an unwelcome one. Others embraced the newly tender angle to his songwriting and the abundance of heavenly ballads. There are a few weak moments, but considering the strength of cuts like Appetite, Love in This Club II and Before I Met You, Here I Stand is still an exceptionally listenable, if slightly uneven, album.
3. My Way
If you had to pick a fault with Usher’s second album, it would be that it has too many ballads. But considering the strength of those ballads, it’s an easy enough problem to overlook. Whereas Usher had shown promise on his debut, here, he shows star quality. Each of My Way’s singles (Nice & Slow, My Way, and You Make Me Wanna…) went platinum, while the album spent three weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, rose to No. 4 on the Billboard 200, and scooped a Grammy nomination. It’s now sold over 6 million copies worldwide and been certified six-times platinum by the RIAA. It also introduced us to Usher’s synchronized chair dance routine, which would be reason enough to justify its place at No. 3 on our list.
As soulinstereo.com says, sometimes, the stars align at just the right time and in just the right place for magic to happen. That was certainly the case for Usher’s third album, which finds Usher hitting his stride vocally and producers Jermaine Dupri, B-Cox, and The Neptunes at their creative peak. A richly textured, hugely imaginative album with an airtight tracklist and a song for every emotional state and experience imaginable (chief highlights include U-Turn, Can U Help Me, and If I Want To, but, really, every song is a classic), it’d still be Usher’s greatest record to this day if it wasn’t for the next album on our list.
As Vibe points out, when Usher released Confessions on March 23, 2004, he never realized that he was setting a new bar for contemporary R&B. He simply got together in the studio with his usual team of producers and writers, talked about women and relationships for a while, then set to work. But the album that came from those conversations was a game-changer. Incorporating everything from crunk and hip hop to pure pop, Confessions is a melting pot of creativity, sonic ingenuity, and pitch-perfect songwriting. It’s not perfect (it’s too long for that) but this is the album that changed R&B, setting the genre on a new path and influencing almost every album that followed in its wake. It’s not just Usher’s best album, it’s one of the finest albums of the 2000s.