Short version: a very good collection of singles about sex that unfortunately lack the coherence to be a truly great album. Still, outside of a few hiccups, Usher does a pretty great job singing elegantly minimalistic songs about sex, sex, and more sex. Also, sex.
When Michael Jackson stopped making pop music, there was immediately a race in the pop culture scene for his replacement, and while a number of artists were aspiring for the crown, it very quickly came to pass that only two artists would have a chance in hell of rising to the occasion.
The first contender was Justin Timberlake, and with Timbaland, he found his Quincy Jones. And for a while, Justin Timberlake seemed to have the race sewn up convincingly. Emerging as one of the few surviving artists of the boy band collapse in the early 2000s, Timberlake had the right mix of swagger, charisma, bombast, and sexuality that made him a good contender, and his release of Futuresex/Lovesounds in the mid-2000s cemented his dominance as a pop star.
Now granted, I've never liked the majority of the music that Justin's produced in his solo career. With a few exceptions, Justin Timberlake's music has lacked the soul necessary to assert dominance in the pop star world. And maybe it's just me, but Justin Timberlake has never seemed to try all that hard. He lacks the rawness that made so many of Michael's singles and albums work so damn well. To him, a genuine triple-threat, music and stardom came naturally, and thus I've always been disappointed that Timberlake has never pushed himself in his experimentation. Now granted, he has experimented, but never in a way that I found particularly compelling - it's all too slick, all too controlled, and never quite achieves the epic scale that he should.
Well, it seems like Justin himself agreed with me, because after doing a few jokey (albeit brilliant) videos with The Lonely Island, he seems to have departed the pop star universe to pursue roles in movies, where he's established himself as a pretty damn great actor. And that leaves us with only one candidate for Michael's throne: Usher.
Okay, I've got to be honest here, I've always really liked Usher. The man has a great voice, is a superb dancer, and a ton of charisma. Even with his early songs, the man always sounded genuine, and that earned a lot of points with me. He's confident without the need to brag, and he's always deserved his spot in the pop star A-List, at least in my opinion. Of course, it's also helped that the man solidified his claim to pop stardom with the fantastic Confessions album in 2004, but I bought into him earlier with his hit 'You Remind Me' in the early 2000s, which won me over with some slick production and Usher's genuine charm. Overall, I was all set to support Usher all the way through the rest of the decade.
And then... something happened. Some have blamed his marriage, some have blamed a lack of ideas, some have blamed his repeated collaborations with Black Eyed Peas frontman and wannabe-auteur/hack will.I.am, but in the end, I'm not sure of whom the blame truly lies (I'm fairly certain it's will.I.am, though). What I do know is that for a period of about six years, from 2005-mid-2010, Usher stopped being good in a shockingly immediate way (I blame will.I.am). Part of it, I will admit, was the embrace of Autotune, and while I'm not against the use of Autotune in ways to enhance one's personality (Ke$ha, T-Pain) or to convey specific themes and styling (Kanye West), I don't like it when good singers feel the need to use it, or when lazy singers (see Jason Derulo and Katy Perry) use it to cover up their inability to hit a note (or, you know, will.I.am). So like the Backstreet Boys, Usher began using Autotune, and like my favourite boy band, his music suffered for it, reaching a low with 'O.M.G.', featuring will.I.am, one of the clumsiest and stupidest songs to come out of 2010 (which I'd argue was a really, REALLY bad year for music - thank you so much, will.I.am).
However, I will give Usher some credit, in that his 2010 album Raymond v. Raymond wasn't terrible. It wasn't great - the abundance of bad singles completely overlooking the fact the album was a breakup album didn't help matters - but there were a few gems in the pile. And upon closer examination, I was rather psyched when I heard the opening singles for Usher's new album that dropped a few days ago. Not only had Usher opted for a more mature, complex style, he'd also dumped the autotune and bad production, and looked prepared to engage in some pretty serious themes.
And then the opening song was a club song courtesy of production from will.I.am, and Usher was singing with Autotune. Fucking wonderful.
And believe you me, 'Can't Stop, Won't Stop' is fucking horrible. Arguably worse than O.M.G., the beat is recycled garbage the Black Eyed Peas would have embarrassed to put out, and the lyrics are fucking wretched, to the point where I refuse to type them in this note on the fear that they'll make my readership collectively stupider by reading them. Suffice to say, it failed cataclysmically as both a dance song and a sex song, and considering this is coming from one of the most successful singers about sex since Prince, that's saying something.
And it's clear from the opening tracks that Looking 4 Myself (and yes, that's the title of Usher's brand new 'single-and-loving-it' album) that this album is going to be chiefly loaded with songs about sex - but to be fair, this isn't a bad thing. I made the Prince analogy earlier, and the reason it fits is because Usher, like Justin Timberlake, can sing about sex and make it sound adult and sexual instead of juvenile and pornographic (unlike, say, Chris Brown, who feels the best way to sing about sex is write a song called 'Wet The Bed' - dear god, I wish I was kidding).
So after the horrible opener, Usher immediately hits two hits straight out of the park with 'Scream' and 'Climax'. The first song is a club sex song, but it works pretty much because the lyrics aren't stupid and Usher can carry a song like this in his fucking sleep. And honestly, it's probably one of the best club sex songs I've heard in a long time. However, his latter song, 'Climax', is fantastic not just because it emulates Prince-esque falsetto, but because the restraint on the song gives Usher a chance to make a song that's pure sex. This is one of the few times where sexuality can carry a song, an object lesson to every R&B singer in the industry now.
In fact, 'Climax' contains two important traits that symbolize the entire album: overarching themes of sex, and constrained minimalism. Fortunately, unlike the era of minimalist R&B (2002-2005), Usher's production is modulated to precisely the right scope to nail the theme of the track. So while 'Climax' and 'Dive' are epic in their broad emptiness, quieter tracks like 'What Happened To U' use their stillness to create a much more contrained atmosphere. Part of this is aided by Usher's impressive layering of harmonies - instead of relying on heavy overproduction to create a wall of sound, Usher uses a much more delicate touch, overdubbing his voice multiple times to create a powerful chorus that still manages to fit the atmosphere of the songs.
Now, granted, the minimalism does slip at points, but even the more heavily produced tracks like 'Scream' or 'Numb' have an impressive air of restraint, blending modern synths (with a thankful lack of dubstep drops) with a feel that's more analogous to Prince's Purple Rain than anything produced by anyone else in the industry. What's more, when Usher does choose to use instrumentation, he doesn't shy away from raw electric guitar or keyboard, tightly constrained to create the potent sound he wants. In an era where raw silence and pacing is abhorred by the music industry, it's a welcome change. The big exceptions to that trend are the first track and the Euro-trash house-inspired final track 'Euphoria', which was produced by the Swedish House Mafia (and it shows), but I'll even give it some points for having more restraint and class than most modern house music.
Do I have any complaints about the instrumentation? Eh, the reverb is abused on a few tracks, but I can forgive it for the reason that it's used to augment the empty minimalism that aids the album's atmosphere. Less easy to forgive are some of the unnecessary synth choices, the most glaring was the choice for a really annoying electronic plinking that bleeds over 'Lessons For The Lover' and detracts from a pretty impressive multi-part harmony on the chorus.
But moving away from the instrumentation, what can I really say about the lyrics or the themes of the album? Surprisingly, not much - namely because this isn't as much of an album as a series of sexually charged singles. The majority of songs seem primed to be played in the bedrooms of young couples looking for ambient sex music (with the exception of 'Sins Of My Father', which is an odd standout that has a bit more lyrical complexity and a real noir feel, but the sweet bass line and multipart harmony means it's still useable in the ambient-sex-music role as well). Some of them are danceable enough, but in a way that seems to imply explicitly sexual dancing that translates into sex later.
Now I've made the argument that sexuality isn't an excuse for artistic creditability, and that I've castigated bands like the Pussycat Dolls for simply playing on sex appeal to sell songs. So am I a hypocrite for then not having much of a problem when Usher publishes an album that is effectively the soundtrack for sex in 2012?
Well, here's the point that redeems Usher in my eyes: quality. On the majority of songs on this album, Usher's production is top-of-the-line, and the man is seriously vocally talented, with the technical skill to manage a multi-part harmony on his best tracks. There is so much constraint and control on the album, not a single wasted moment on his better tracks, and there's an elegance that's impossible to fake. Compare to, say, the Pussycat Dolls, or Chris Brown, both who sell explicitly sexual material. The problem is here is that while the production is okay on some of their tracks and the vocals might be decent, there's no artistry or creativity, nothing to distinguish the Pussycat Dolls from Girlicious or Chris Brown from any one of his imitators. It also helps that Usher has dignity and poise for his sexual anthems that add a welcome layer of maturity that I'd even argue Ludacris and Lil Wayne don't have.
So yeah, am I going to say that I'm a little disappointed Usher didn't experiment with differing themes besides sex, sexuality, and more sex in his lyrics, or explore a more coherent overarching theme for the album as a whole? Yeah, a little bit. Am I annoyed that the album isn't quite as strong as it could be, due to its lack of broader experimentation besides flirtations with minimalism, constraint, and multi-part harmony? Yeah, a little bit.
But I can't deny the truth of the matter: in refining his craft on this album, Usher has probably produced one of the best albums that's universally about sex in a long time, and with songs like 'Climax', he's got it down to an art form that outstrips his nearest competitors by miles. Definitely a step in the right direction, and definitely the right - if explicit - step for Usher. He's still got work before he's ready to take on Michael's vacant throne, but he's getting there.
Move over, Justin Timberlake: in 2012, Usher's bringing sexy back.