Usher struggles to mature on ‘Hard II Love’
Jimmy Kemper | Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Once when I was still living in Atlanta, I went to see the movie “Elysium.” The movie itself was honestly maybe a bit forgettable, but it was worth remembering because of what happened in the movie theatre bathroom after the show. As I walking in, a short guy who I swore I knew was walking out. As I struggled to figure out who he was — and instead of just asking him — we gave each other the classic ‘sup’ nod and went our own ways. After a few minutes, I realized it was Usher and was disappointed that I didn’t recognize him immediately.
The Usher on his latest album, “Hard II Love,” sort of feels like the Usher I met (in arguably the lamest celebrity encounter of all time) in that it’s tough to recognize him. For this record, Usher has placed himself squarely in the “tough lover” archetype that currently dominates the R&B genre, which is radically different from the Usher of 2012’s “Looking 4 Myself.”
He’s singing mainly about the difficulties in loving him, the kind of women he’s looking for and how he’s better than other lovers. To accomplish those ends, tracks on this album can be split into two broad categories: smoother love ballads and bumpier club tracks.
While most of Usher’s work can arguably be placed into one of those two categories, never before have the boundaries been so clearly defined. Take, for instance, album opener “Need U,” which begins with Usher trying to explain himself before he goes off into a Bryson Tiller-esque flow over Kanye West-esque 808 beats. It effectively conveys the point that Usher thinks he’s a tough guy and he wants the girl, but it doesn’t do much more than that.
This type of song is huge right now in the R&B industry, with everyone from Zayn to Miguel to Drake and even the now-excellent Justin Bieber creating some variation of that motif. However, Usher is so much older and has so much more experience than those artists that, coming into this record, I was expecting a little more.
Lyrically, this isn’t that impressive of an album. And the production, while featuring the who’s who of the field — including the up-and-coming Metro Boomin — feels vague and incohesive, in part due to that broad range of producers.
In spite of these difficulties, Usher’s singing is still unparalleled in his field, and he doesn’t need the big complicated trap-style production or vocal effects and enhancements of this album to make his voice heard.
This was made abundantly clear on 2012’s “Climax,” where Usher’s soaring vocals carried listeners across an intense emotional chasm. “Climax” was the centerpiece of “Looking 4 Myself,” a magnum opus to which every other track on that album could relate. It was critically successful, even gaining the honor of Pitchfork’s top song of 2012, and also commercially successful, reaching No. 1 on the U.S. Hot R&B charts.
“Hard II Love” does not have a “Climax.” It also fails to connect with the 10 weird, critically obsessive kids on campus who actually read Scene — and the greater music community.
Even the tracks designed to gain some traction at the clubs simply do not have the capability of gripping the audience the way Usher has in the past. For example, “No Limit” feels pretty limited: even a feature from Young Thug can’t liven that song up. As I mentioned in my review of Young Thug’s latest masterpiece, “(No My Name Is) Jeffrey,” Young Thug is one of the top rappers in the game right now with his trippy vocals that exist in some undefined space between hip-hop and pop, and I don’t think Usher took full advantage of that weirdness, choosing instead to underemploy his talents on a pretty straightforward track.
“Make U A Believer,” produced by the aforementioned Metro Boomin, is probably the best track on the album. It features traditional Atlanta trap beats and booming bass thumps, but the production is minimal enough that Usher has the space to expand vocally. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the gravitas to justify an entire album surrounding it.
Usher has shown us in his previous seven albums that he has the capacity to think forward instead of leaning back on the archetypes that currently dominate airwaves. Hopefully on his next album we’ll be able to recognize that Usher and give him more than a passing nod.
“Make U A Believer,” “Need U”