One of Usher’s most impressive performances, quiet as kept, is one not many people got a chance to see. It was April 2012, a one-night only show. You had to be in New York City. As part of an experiment for his seventh album Looking 4 Myself, he guest starred in a production of Fuerza Bruta, a high-sensory performance piece that immerses the crowd. I found myself there on assignment, and in the vicinity of Justin Bieber, who wore a hoodie and stood amongst the people. The show started with Usher in all white, walking and then running on a treadmill in the middle of the theater while one of his greatest hits, “Climax,” played. Later, a wet Plexiglass platform, which a guy near me described as “a fucking Slip’N Slide,” lowered from the ceiling and hovered above us as dancers gracefully slid across. This was Usher at his best—co-opting an off-Broadway fete that had no connection to the material on his album at all. He just wanted to put on a show.
Post-peak Usher isn’t the stuntman he used to be, but he’s still the most consummate showboat. He will ham all out if he needs to, and often, new Usher (whether it’s “Climax” or, more recently, “No Limit”) will feel like stumbling on a discontinued version of the old Usher. Nice, if not stunning. On his new album, which he’s titled with Roman numerals again (Hard II Love), his seamless melodies and fluid vocal strokes remain leaps and bounds ahead of his peers, though conceptually the album is a letdown from an artist who’s good at packaging his material into sagas and salacious romantic plot twists. There are no more juicy stories left in him (none that anyone cares about) and so, no consistent structure either.
Usher is instead content to shamelessly merge the sounds of the moment with his own Usher style, which means sleek falsettos, fast raps and sex. A Metro Boomin beat, a Young Thug feature, and a dim after-hours track (“Downtime”). The (very solid) first half of this album—“Missin U” (and its perfect transitions from chopped-and-screwed to old school slow-jam), “Bump,” “No Limit” and “Let Me”—seems as if we’re seeing Usher coolly pop-lock in a subway car like a Showtime performer trying to beg you to pay attention. “I care less bout these hos ’cause she the one I chose,” he’ll sing, then vanish. “That was unoriginal but cool,” a teen might say, then return to Snapchat, unaware that Usher is in fact their muse.
It’s easy to forget he’s been doing this since 14 years old, since Usher albums have sunk to the lowest of import for many people. We’ve seen him cycle through albums about male angst only to wreck it through infidelity (the beloved 8701), to then record an album about marriage (Here I Stand) and then one about that failed marriage and subsequent divorce (Raymond V Raymond), before reverting to a state of midlife confusion (Looking 4 Myself). This era of Usher could be considered the repentant part of his career where he reclaims some of the smooth/crass R&B-rap vibes he passed down. Confessions is a permanent reminder that he’s a star, while everything after is a reminder that he’s still got it but not IT.
In character, he’s still a reformed commitment-phobe perpetually in need of forgiveness, stuck in a never-ending sequel of I Think I Love My Wife. He sings a lot about killing old habits and succumbing to change, and about that wonderful feminine mystique that constantly surrounds and tempts him. He promises: “If I ever cheat, all she gon’ ever taste is your flavor” (“Missin U”). And begs: “Forgive me for what I put you through, let me love you, baby” (“Need U”). And teases: “Say you got a good thing/Well, he don’t have to know” (“Downtime”).
Usher will never allow himself to be thrown out of the loop completely and, for that reason, he’s prone to making himself look ridiculous. The cover art for this album—a bruised, stone artistic mockup of his face—looks insane and the intro, “Need U,” has an arbitrary “Conversation with Priyanka Chopra.” We’re talking about a man who doesn’t mind driving head-on into trend traffic and who somehow pulls it off, even if it means releasing a bad EDM jam called “OMG” or judging a hokey singing competition called The Voice, thereby extending his lifeline. If nothing, Usher is remarkably efficient.