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Usher vs. Justin Timberlake

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Destiny’s Child or TLC? Beatles or Stones? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer tries to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?

The Rivalry

In the 1990s, a pair of Southern boys rose to singing stardom. One was an R&B crooner from Atlanta by way of Chattanooga. The other was a bubblegum pop star from Memphis. Eventually they’d meet in the pop-R&B middle with a pair of the definitive albums of the 2000s — Usher’s Confessions in 2004 and Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. These two men have both been releasing music for two decades and wowing audiences with their dance moves for just as long. They’ve both gone diamond. And they’ve both knelt at the throne of the King. But who’s the more popular artist in 2016? Spotify’s got the stats.

Usher

There is no artist that dominated a year this millennium the way Usher dominated 2004. Confessions’ three main singles spent a combined 22 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. The album sold more than 10 million copies in the United States. The Thunderclap overtook middle schools across America. Usher was ubiquitous in a way that no artist may ever be again.

So it’s not a huge shock that Confessions remains his most popular album, according to Spotify data. The album is the apex of vintage Usher, who melded club bravado, classic romance, and earnest pledges to be a better man. But Confessions also includes “Yeah!” which is both a blessing and a curse to the Usher discography.

“Yeah!” is less a song and more four-minute fire alarm that alerts everyone that they must report to the dance floor immediately for their own safety (it also brought us the delightful word “Ursher”). The track has 120 million Spotify listens, which is a massive figure for a song from the pre-streaming era (Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” the biggest song of the 2000s, has 40 million streams; “Beat It” has 107 million). What makes “Yeah!” so enduring? It was the broadest of hits when it came out, a melding of rowdy Southern crunk and glittery R&B, with a hint of the electronic gloss that would come to define the pop music landscape just a few years later. Among Spotify’s many heavily trafficked playlists, you’ll find “Yeah!” included on “Workout Twerkout” (802,605 followers as of Monday), “Epic Throwback Dance Party” (867,757 followers), “2000s Smash Hits” (349,374 followers), and “R&B Classics” (82,810 followers), among others. “Yeah!” is sonic shorthand for 2004, and whatever was going on in your life that year. People will always love revisiting their past through it.

But “Yeah!” was, at the time, a radical departure from Usher’s ’90s-R&B roots. “The song was incredible but it didn’t have anything to do with Confessions,” admitted longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri, who initially questioned its inclusion on the album. Usher has spent the ensuing 12 years chasing dance-floor hits. He’s found them — 2010’s ”DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” and 2012’s “Scream” were both top 10 hits, and are his next-most-streamed songs after “Yeah!” But he’s also lost a strong sense of personal identity. Confessions was a deliberate attempt to create a mystique around Usher’s personal life through messy stories of infidelity and failed relationships. Usher continues to make music about these topics, but they now play second string to the club fodder.

Usher continues to crank out hits — his most popular Spotify song, “I Don’t Mind,” is from 2014 — but the singer feels oddly anonymous today. Frank Ocean’s confessions are more raw, the Weeknd’s bedroom jams are more lustful, and Miguel’s coy come-ons are more charming. The Weeknd had the most streamed album on Spotify in 2015, and Frank Ocean staged a live-trolling visual experience on Apple Music this summer. Usher’s latest album, Hard II Love, was released Friday to little fanfare and is expected to sell a pittance in its opening week. The R&B veteran established lanes for today’s stars, but it feels like he’s been left at the curb.

Justin Timberlake

Every night, before Justin Timberlake goes to bed, he should thank God for the day he met Timbaland. The legendary producer has a production credit on nine of Timberlake’s 10 most streamed songs. There’s an alternate reality where Timberlake’s longtime collaborator instead became the Neptunes (they produced the bulk of 2002’s Justified) and instead of FutureSex/LoveSounds we got TropicalAcoustic/SynthSounds. That is the darkest timeline.

Tim & Tim has been one of the greatest musical partnerships of the 21st century. Their journey began with “Cry Me a River,” an all-time petty anthem that’s easily the standout track from Justified (and the most streamed). The song does what all their best productions do, creating a chaotic sonic maelstrom and using Timberlake’s delicate voice as the listener’s only life raft. Before “Cry Me a River,” JT was a reformed boy band mascot veering dangerously close to becoming a professional Michael Jackson impersonator. Then he made a haunting hip-hop dirge about breaking up with Britney Spears that somehow weeps and knocks, and we had to take him seriously.

Four years later Timberlake asked Timbaland if he could make “five or six more ‘Cry Me a Rivers,’” and Timbaland went above and beyond the call of duty. FutureSex/LoveSounds turned 10 earlier this month, and it still sounds as thrillingly fluid as it did the day it came out. The songs on this classic LP feel like they’re trapped in a perpetual state of deconstruction — like Timbaland decided to set Saturday Night Fever in the year 3000, then used an encryption device to scramble the soundtrack. “SexyBack,” the album’s outlandish thesis statement, is its most streamed song and Timberlake’s third-most-popular song overall. “My Love” and “What Goes Around … Comes Around,” the album’s other main singles, are also still accruing lots of listens.

Like Usher, though, Justin Timberlake’s best work isn’t consistently his most popular. After years of making hits with Timbaland, Timberlake teamed up with Max Martin on “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!” (YES IT’S ALL CAPS), a surefire no. 1 hit so bland that even Bruno Mars probably passed on the beat. It’s now JT’s most streamed song. His second-biggest Spotify hit is “Mirrors,” the breakout single from 2013’s The 20/20 Experience that’s actively trying to scare sexy away.

These two radio-friendly cash-ins, with more than 600 million streams between them, are the sole reason JT is winning this head-to-head. With eight solo LPs to Timberlake’s four (and let’s be honest, Timberlake should’ve kept The 20/20 Experience: The Dregs to himself), Usher is the more prolific artist of the two with a much longer list of hits. And he’s the better dancer, because he made flirting with a mic stand into art. But it’s Timberlake who remains more relevant in the streaming era, and who reached the greater creative zenith on the ambitious FutureSex/LoveSounds. MJ would be proud of both of his disciples, no doubt.