The Love Triangle Story Behind “You Make Me Wanna…” by Usher

Just as all superheroes need an origin story, all superstar musicians need that single song that launches them. Usher stands as one of the preeminent R&B artists of his generation, and “You Make Me Wanna…” proved to be the song that lit the fuse for the explosive superstardom to come.

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What was the inspiration for this massive hit? How did it also help to spark Usher’s ascent as a songwriter? And what force of nature kept it from becoming a No. 1 hit? It all goes back to before the turn of the millennium, when a prodigy named Usher Raymond was looking for this breakthrough.

Usher’s Way

Usher released his self-titled debut album in 1994 when he was only 15 years old. As could be expected with someone so young, the record relied heavily on collaborators for the producing and the songwriting. Yet the LP didn’t yield any songs that broke through to wider than a devout R&B audience.

For his 1997 follow-up, My Way, Usher narrowed down his list of collaborators, with much of the album recorded under the leadership of songwriters and producers Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal. The result was a much more focused album that also benefited from Usher’s increased maturity and confidence.

One other major difference was that Usher was far more involved on the songwriting end. In particular. Dupri and Seal concocted a track with an itchy mid-tempo energy and a peppery beat somewhat reminiscent of R&B legend Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” When looking for lyrics, Dupri reminded Usher of a story that the singer had told the producer about being entangled in a love triangle.

“I was with one girl, but I had flown to Los Angeles and I fell in love with this other girl,” Usher told Entertainment Weekly of the story behind what would become “You Make Me Wanna…” “And what was so odd about it is she started out as a friend, and was encouraging me to keep my relationship afloat. And then I’m like, ‘Well s–t, why don’t I be with you?'”

Using that story, Dupri began to write key lyrics for the song, and he explained to Usher that he was simply parroting what the singer had told him. As a result, Usher’s confidence as a songwriter grew exponentially from that point.

What is “You Make Me Wanna…” About?

Going back to The Beatles’ playbook, “You Make Me Wanna…” wastes no time and gets right to the gist of the story in the chorus: You make me wanna leave the one I’m with/Start a new relationship with you. From that point, everything else elaborates upon the reasons why this is so, as the anguish in Usher’s voice makes clear the gravity of the situation.

I think about a ring and all the things that come wit’ it, Usher exclaims, a line that illustrates the import of such a decision. In the verses, he explains that the shoulder upon which he used to cry about his current relationship actually belongs to the girl that now holds his heart: And what’s sad is that I love her, but I’m fallin’ for you/What should I do?

“You Make Me Wanna…” captures that feeling of being in limbo that can wreck a person. No lines articulate this better than Usher moans, Cause I, I don’t wanna go, don’t need to stay/But I really need to get it together. It’s a very adult notion expressed by a guy who was only 18 years old at the time of the song’s release.

Speaking of limbo, this song knew that feeling in terms of its chart success in the US. It settled at No. 2 in the US for seven weeks, but never made it to the top spot. The reason: Elton John’s grief-fueled juggernaut “Candle in the Wind ’97” just wouldn’t budge from No. 1. Still, even as Usher would go on to top the singles charts nine times, no song proved as important to his career’s trajectory as “You Make Me Wanna….”

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartRadio )

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