Monday, September 19, 2016

album review: 'hard ii love' by usher

There are so many ways that I could start this review. So many obvious choices for a topic and preamble, the biggest being the storied history of one of my favourite R&B artists in the past decade and how his ups and downs have translated to some fantastic singles but inconsistent albums - with the exception of Confessions, obviously.

But I bet the fact that I would even consider Usher a favourite R&B artist when on the surface he's not all that different than many of his peers probably raises some eyebrows. Well, remember how I said several reviews back that an artist with real charisma can make music that's powerful without needing to sound like work? Usher falls right into that lane, with easily one of the most expressive vocal ranges you'll hear in R&B and the sort of poise and confidence that makes him damn near untouchable when he wants to be. And yet as an artist, I really wish I liked his albums more, but that's what you get with a singles artist, a musician far more well-known for songs that entire projects - with, of course, the exception of Confessions.

I guess that's a larger part of the problem: as a record, Confessions did have a more unified theme and at least aimed for a little more insight, which meant that it set an expectation that Usher would deliver more in this vein... and he really hasn't. He kept pushing his sound with the times or even bypassing it altogether into newer territory. People tend to forget how much a song like 'Climax' pushed that darker sort of PBR&B into the mainstream, on top of just being a jaw-dropping example of how to do a quiet storm song right as one of the best hits of 2012. 

But since then... yeah, I really liked 'Scream', but Usher seemed to have a lot of trouble pulling the album together. He released a series of singles that balanced between absolutely incredible like 'Good Kisser' - seriously, if you had put this on a record it'd have a shot at the best songs of ANY respective year regardless of being a hit - and other tracks like 'I Don't Mind' that were merely okay to good, mostly elevated by Usher's presence. But we've finally got the new, much delayed album from Usher called Hard II Love - did it deliver?

Well, let's get this out of the way: there's absolutely no reason why 'Good Kisser' isn't on this album and 'Champions', the by-the-numbers Latin-touched song that doesn't fit and yet seems to end too many modern R&B and hip-hop albums, is. But moving that obvious flaw aside... look, it can be tough to evaluate Usher albums because they're really a delivery mechanism for solid singles rather than conveying a direct theme... and frankly, the more I think about the implied themes of this record the more I kind of wish this album just fell into that mold. As a whole though... it's definitely good, but it's also one of those projects that should have been great and it's frustrating that it's not.

So let's get the obvious parts out of the way: yes, Usher remains one of the most naturally charismatic R&B singers in the mainstream over the past few decades, with a huge range and an expressiveness that allowed him to get away with missteps that would have crippled so many other artists. When Usher is belting in his midrange or dipping into his falsetto, there are very few who can match his intensity especially when he has multi-tracking, and the same is completely true here... which is why it's so damn baffling for songs like his lead-off single 'No Limit' for him to stick with his more restrained and not particularly interesting lower range. He sounds fine, and outside of that Young Thug actually delivers one of his most consistently on-topic verses and the instrumental has some smolder, if a tad reminiscent of Jeremih's 'Planes' with J. Cole, but Usher should be more than 'fine', damn it! Go a track later to 'Bump' with the falsetto and multitracking on the hook and the fantastic build-up on the bridge, including a Lil Jon sample that came out of left-field but surprisingly worked for me, or the aching falsetto of 'Crash', or the sensual cooing that anchors the eight-minute plus sex song 'Tell Me' with some gorgeous vocal layering that's almost enough to distract from the overlayered synth and the crescendo that doesn't quite crest as well as it should, or the triumphant gospel and African touches on 'Stronger' that connect incredibly well. If I'm being bluntly honest, Usher doesn't indulge in his bombastic instincts nearly as well, and outside of the darker intensity of 'Downtime' which ended up working way better than I expected, he instead opts for more hip-hop cadences - which, yes, he does better than expected, but it's not an area that he can really shine. I will say that opposite Future on 'Rivals' he proves exactly why Future should continue to stay far away from R&B - the darker hip-hop pivot was the best thing for him, he's got no business sharing a song with Usher.

But I can't say I'm surprised Future's here, and a lot of that has to do with the production. Following in the more atmospheric style that was all over Looking 4 Myself, this is Usher's first definitive step towards more trap sounds and... well, it's mixed, probably characterized best on 'Missin U'. Great hook with some old-school classy flair, especially in that bass, but surround it with a wonky synth oscillation and pitch-shifted vocals and it's just not as good of a fit. Similar flourishes show up on 'Let Me' - I don't mind trap snares around the swelling, smoky mix, but it's definitely a track that would match its cowriter PARTYNEXTDOOR better than Usher. Similar case for Metro Boomin on 'Make U A Believer' - Usher can play with a rougher, more commanding vibe to match the harsher synths, but is that what anyone wants out of Usher, because it doesn't really fit his strengths. And then there's production that just can feel clunky, like the thin keys and popping beat on 'FWM', which in comparison to the well-balanced distant guitar and piano on the title track or the wiry snap of 'Crash' just feels underproduced and underwhelming. Really, what this record highlights is that when Usher sticks with an older style of R&B - namely in the pianos or basslines that call back to the 90s like on the opener 'Need U', it's a much more natural fit, especially as it can favour more of a defined melody in the mix

But of course, all of this spacey instrumentation needs to be filled with something, so let's talk content... and really, if you've heard an Usher record, you know what you're getting at this point. Sex songs like 'Tell Me' or 'Bump', broken or complex relationships like 'Crash' or 'FWM', and the one element that I've always liked about Usher's writing: honesty. Because if you've been following Usher's narrative arc throughout the past few records, it's not exactly a flattering picture, trying to buy and brag his way into women's hearts and barely capable of monogamy - and it's telling how much he knows it and has accepted the consequences, even despite being married now. And while the record begins with him trying to own up to his failures and professing to change to save things, as it progresses you get the impression that's probably not going to happen, with more of the album's arc showing Usher learning to accept the consequences of not changing. That's one reason I really like 'Down Time' - it's plainly a hookup track where they both might have significant others, but it's framed with enough dark sensuality to connect, even if Usher sounds disconcerted by it all. And that's one of the frustrating contradictions about Usher - he's capable of passion to the point where he's had women throw themselves at him for nearly twenty years... but despite how much he wants them his relationships tend to sputter out, and it's mostly his fault. It's one of the reasons 'Make U A Believer' rubbed me the wrong way - I get it might be a reality for Usher that his girl's female friends might be trying to convince her to break up so they'll have a shot, but Usher's tone and the confrontational writing don't help anything. And the title track also rings as a little iffy - he describes loving him as a gamble that'll often fail unless you win big... but you know, Usher, you could try a little harder to control yourself if this relationship really is what you want, as implied in the bridge. This is an album where Usher wants it both ways - no, not like that - and thus, it can be a little frustrating trying to empathize with him...

And yet there's a part of me that really does want to give him a pass, mostly because he is such a great performer and there are some fantastic songs here. And while the themes are tenuous if you buy into them at all, as I said at the beginning, Usher is a singles artist, and he often has such a command of the grooves and progressions on this album that even at his worst he remains compelling. If you gave a lot of these songs to Jeremih or Chris Brown or Trey Songz or even The Weeknd i might be a lot less willing to get on board... but it's Usher, and sometimes raw charisma balanced with honesty can make up for a lot. As such, this album is getting an extremely light 7/10 - I'd be more confident in this rating if 'Good Kisser' was on the album, but even still, there are moments here that are damn close to spectacular, and if you're an Usher fan, like I am, you'll enjoy the hell out of this. Otherwise... check out the favourites or maybe the singles, because Usher is definitely good enough to be worth your time.

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