“Yeah!” casts a long shadow, and the truth is I’d mostly forgotten its follow-up, the intended lead single for the Confessions LP before Lil Jon muscled it out the way. So “Burn” was a pleasant rediscovery: it’s hardly the genre-bursting, elbow-throwing riot of “Yeah!”, but it’s an impeccably constructed and executed example of what soulmen were doing well in 2004. The kind of record you want to call a “slice of R&B” and for once mean the cliche – a genre as a scrumptious, endless cake where any serving contains the delicious qualities of the whole.

In 2004, those qualities often involved sounding like R.Kelly. “Burn” was already one of the best imitations of Kelly’s free-roaming, casually hooky, story-led 00s style – now it’s a way to hear that template used without feeling repulsed. And if its best moments are often the most Kellyish – that soft, high “hoo hoo hoo” hook taking up a few contemplative beats before the pre-chorus climax – Usher and songwriter Jermaine Dupri make the style their own emotionally, putting over vulnerability and confusion in a way Kelly had no interest in doing.

“Burn” is a tangle of indecision, twisting and knotting around itself, the singer ending up scorched in the fires he started. Gorgeously smooth it may be, but it’s also an uncomfortably accurate sketching of the agonised second-guessing and self-doubt that can come with deciding to end a relationship, including the stabbing post-breakup conviction that you’ve made entirely the wrong choice. The meandering, sing-speak approach Usher is using is a perfect vehicle for this kind of interior focus, even as it’s simultaneously a great way to demonstrate his agility and precision as a singer.

But ultimately those two qualities rub against each other a little. “Burn” is both a maze of doubt and a brilliant singer speedrunning that maze. “Yeah!” worked so well because it made Usher sweat, putting Usher in a musical environment where his mellifluous seducer’s tone couldn’t do all the work. Where he had to sweat. “Burn” isn’t like that. Complications in Dupri’s personal life apparently inspired the song, but the backing he provides here is discreet and straightforward. “Burn” is mature, sensitive, finely turned – but sweatless.

Score: 7

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