In 1996, Usher appeared on the soundtrack of Kazaam, the magical feature film starring NBA player Shaquille O’Neal. He performed the track “I Swear I’m In Love.” It was his first time working with the dynamic production duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Jam recalls his initial time collaborating with the then-budding artist being “real quick.”
“I think he came to Minneapolis for one day to do that song,” Jam recalls over a phone conversation with Rated R&B. “Terry was working on something else. I think we were kind of simultaneously working on the soundtrack on different songs. So I ended up working kind of much more closely with Usher on that particular song. I remember when Terry heard it, he said, ‘Man, He is really good.’”
Jam remembers providing Usher with a melody and the lyrics and him just running with it. “He nailed it. He did all the backgrounds and all the vocals. He just killed it. Terry was like, ‘Wow. I like him. We got to do some more stuff with him.”
And they did.
When Usher was working on his third studio album, 8701, Jam remembers Usher’s mother, who was also his manager at the time, asking for them to get involved. “We ran into her somewhere, and she said, ‘Usher has this song that you guys need to produce because it’s really good, but it just needs the right kind of production on it.” That song was “Separated,” a bonus track that appears on the international edition of 8701.
Jam and Lewis’ involvement with “Separated” led to more collaborations on the album, including the lead single “U Remind Me,” which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Best Male R&B Vocal Performace at the 44th Grammy Awards. Like “Separated,” the early version of “U Remind Me,” co-written by Anita McCloud and Edmund Clement, needed some improvement on the production.
LA Reid, president of Arista Records at the time, had reached out to them to have them add their magic touch. Reid believed that the song had big potential and was adamant about taking it to the next level. “I remember LA called us after we sent him the finished product, and he was like, ‘This is the first single.’”
8701 was released on August 7, 2001. The album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. In addition to working with Jam & Lewis on his third LP, he teamed up with other producers such as Babyface, Bryan-Michael Cox, Jermaine Dupri, Mike City, Soulshock & Karlin, The Neptunes and Soulshock & Karlin. Similar to his sophomore album, My Way, Usher was involved with the songwriting process of 8701 — and production, too. He contributed his skills on “Intro-Lude 8701” and “Without U (Interlude),” with support from Jam & Lewis.
A post-teen Usher, 23 at the time, had told JET Magazine that 8701 reflected his “evolution as an artist.” Looking back 20 years later, Jam agrees, citing it was “a moment of growth.” Usher showing his growth as an artist wasn’t anything new, though. Jam goes into describing how Usher naturally evolved over the years prior to 8701.
“I look at Usher and I think about when I heard his first song, ‘Call Me A Mack’ [from the Poetic Justice soundtrack], where he had the little boy voice. It sounded like little Michael Jackson,” he recounts. “Then he went from that to the DeVante Swing-[penned] ‘Can U Get Wit It’ [from his self-titled debut album]. Then, the maturity from that into the Jermaine Dupri My Way era, into the 8701 era. He’s like a musical student that’s been mentored by a lot of great creative people in his life. But then he’s taken the reins of that and built an amazing career from that.”
“U Remind Me” wasn’t the only hit on 8701. The album also spawned the Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper “U Got It Bad,” co-produced by Dupri and Cox, and The Neptunes-produced “U Don’t Have to Call,” which peaked at No. 3 on the same chart. The latter tune also earned Usher a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at the 45th ceremony.
Hits aside, 8701 was a solid album all-around. Take “Can U Help Me,” for instance, another track produced by Jam & Lewis. For nearly six minutes, Usher pleads to his woman to work with him on saving their relationship. “Can you help me? Tell me what you want from me / Can you help me? Tell me why you wanna leave,” Usher croons on the standout track.
Since Jam & Lewis were familiar with Usher’s vocal ability from working with him in years prior, they wanted to craft a song that would allow him to solidify himself as more than an entertainer.
“Being in the studio with him, we were impressed by his vocals. Even if he was just sitting on a chair singing, he was amazing,” says Jam. “We wanted to make sure we had songs that really showed off his voice, where when you heard it, you went, ‘Wow. He can really sing.” When we wrote ‘Can U Help Me, that was kind of the idea of it.”
He also mentions Usher wanted to make a song to evoke the feeling of ballads they wrote and produced, such as New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain” and Force MDs’ “Tender Love,” while adding his unique spin.
“That’s one of our favorite songs that was never a big single or anything,” shares Jam. “There was never really a video done or anything for it. It’s definitely one of our favorite songs that we wrote. Of course, when you write a song for an artist and with an artist and watch them bring it to life, that’s always the coolest thing. I know it was one of Usher’s favorites, too.”
Speaking of favorites, another underrated track on the album helmed by Jam & Lewis is “How Do I Say.” Here, a speechless Usher tries to find the right words to describe how he feels towards a crush. “How do I say hello? I just wanna talk to you / How do I say you’re beautiful when I can’t take my eyes off you? / I don’t wanna say the wrong thing, I wanna use the right words to impress you,” he timidly sings.
“We wanted to surround him with beautiful guitars and a sense of elegance, I think would be the word that comes to mind, when we were doing the song,” explains Jam. “Usher’s a very elegant person. He’s very aware of the finer things in life. We just wanted a song that really felt elegant in a way. I think that was the song to do it.”
The chemistry between Jam & Lewis and Usher remains strong. He appears on the duo’s debut album, Jam & Lewis, Vol. 1, on the seductive track “Do It Yourself.” The official lyric video, premiered by Rated R&B, arrived on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 8701.
Jam concludes, “We feel with him being involved on our Jam & Lewis project is a full-circle moment.”
Revisit Usher’s album 8701 below.