Usher: Painting By Numbers



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A few weeks ago, Morning Edition launched a new feature that explores popular music and the cultural phenomena surrounding it. After addressing Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj, the discussion turns to Usher. Click the "Listen to the Story" link above to hear music writer Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth (of discuss the song and the cultural contributions of Usher and a famous collaborator.

Last year, Black Eyed Peas had the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 for 26 weeks, ruling the nation's primary pop chart with the blippy "Boom Boom Pow" and the optimistic party jam "I Gotta Feeling." This week, the No. 1 song also comes from Black Eyed Peas frontman and mastermind, but it arrives via Usher, the R&B superstar whose 2004 album Confessions was the RIAA's last diamond-certified record (signifying shipments of more than 10 million copies).

"OMG," from Usher's just-released Raymond vs. Raymond, marks something of a departure for the singer. Especially because, for the most part, his pipes -- which turned songs like the Confessions megahit "Burn" and the recent ode to splitting up a marriage "Papers" into ear-wrenching pleadings -- aren't really anywhere to be found. The melody is a simple singsong that bears an abstract resemblance to the similarly basic "Shimmy Shimmy Coco Bop," while the vocals themselves are buried under layers of processing.

Instead, in "OMG," center stage is given over to the workings behind the music. The combination of a minimalist musical backing and cheers buried deep in the mix serves to frame the song as a come-on proffered in an impossibly dark nightclub. That sets this scene in such a way that people are willing to listen to it in decidedly nonclub settings -- the gym, the office, wherever -- is probably a testament to the way he's been seeking out the pop formula that will please the greatest possible number of people. (Who else would be mindful enough of potential listeners' objections to taking the Lord's name in vain that he'd change the "G" in the song's titular initialism to "Gosh"?)

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(Soundbite of song, "Oh, My Gosh")

USHER (Singer): (Singing) Oh, my. Baby, let me love down. There's so many ways to love you.


And that, for those of you may not know, is the number-one song in the country. On the Billboard chart it says: "OMG" by Usher, featuring But this song is practically engineered by producer of the Black Eyed Peas, and that's what music commentators Maura Johnston and Jay smooth are talking about as part of our Pop Off series.

Mr. JAY SMOOTH ( Okay, so this song starts out with's highly auto-tuned voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, My Gosh")

Mr. WILL.I.AM (Music Producer/Singer): (Singing) Oh, my gosh.

Mr. SMOOTH: And then we hear the beginning of Usher's vocal, but then it stops right in the middle of a syllable.

USHER: (Singing) Baby, let me - I did it again so I'm let...

Mr. SMOOTH: And then comes back in. And then...

USHER: (Singing) Oh, my. Baby, let me love down....

Mr. SMOOTH: ...Usher's voice starts again, back on the beginning. It's as if is letting us know Usher is simply a button that I'm pushing in this mix.

Ms. MAURA JOHNSTON (Writer/Editor, Totally. He's so known for his super-expressive singing. Even on his last big club hit, he sang. He would belt out the chorus. And here, he's just sort of like chopped into these little food processor parts.

USHER: (Singing) I want to say, oh, oh, oh, oh...

Mr. SMOOTH: Right. So why do you think Usher is going this route?

Ms. JOHNSTON: Usher, you know, he's trying to make a comeback. His last record was sort of a flop, and it's basically a way to sort of capitalize on the Black Eyed Peas' success last year. The Black Eyed Peas had the number one song in the country for 26 weeks of calendar year 2009.

Mr. SMOOTH: Right. It reminds me of the movie "Pulp Fiction," where the guys are really in trouble and they go call in the cleaner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMOOTH: And it seems like is the cleaner of pop hits.


Mr. SMOOTH: You call him in, and no matter what's going on, he'll have the perfect formula. He's like an evil scientist...

Ms. JOHNSTON: He really is.

Mr. SMOOTH: ...of session pop music. And even just the title of the song, when I saw it was "OMG," I assumed that meant oh, my God. But only would think to change that to oh, my gosh - just to make sure you don't alienate the two percent that might be put off by actually saying oh, my God.

Ms. JOHNSTON: It's funny because how many who are saying OMG on, say, Twitter, really do mean oh, my gosh? I guess we'll never know.

Mr. SMOOTH: I had never thought of it, but is the man who would think of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, My Gosh")

USHER: (Singing) Got me like oh, my gosh. I'm so in love. I finally found you, it make me want to say oh, oh , oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh my gosh.

Ms. JOHNSTON: A very canny move by to import this crowd noise, because then that's something that can easily be played over a stadium loudspeakers at a baseball game, say, when somebody makes a crazy catch that's worthy of an OMG.

(Soundbite of song, "I Gotta Feeling")

Mr. SMOOTH: With the Black Eyed Peas, he's always focused on making the perfect Twinkie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMOOTH: He's like, you know, there's sort of trend in the culinary world -at least here in New York - of gourmet chefs seeing if they can make the perfect donut or hot dog or something. I feel like that - the Black Eyed Peas has been that project for And I guess it's an apt analogy, since his records stay on the charts so long and Twinkies have a shelf life of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMOOTH: ...uranium or something.

(Soundbite of song, "I Gotta Feeling")

BLACK EYED PEAS (Pop Group): (Singing) ...a good, good night, I feel it. And tonight's going to be a good night. And tonight's going to be a good night...


That's music writer Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth, who blogs at

And, Lynn, didn't you interview the Black Eyed Peas earlier this year?

NEARY: I did, indeed. And that song "I Gotta Feeling," you know, it's like mind control.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And there's a link to our Black Eyed Peas interview at the website:

NEARY: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.