At its best moment, Usher’s eighth studio album Hard II Love is vibrant, tightrope-walking the line between vintage Usher and today’s R&B while possibly hinting at his sound in the future. It’s been four years since his last album Looking 4 Myself and much has changed within the genre but on select tracks, he sounds as if he’s above trend-hopping, rather adapting to the new while staying true.
Take the second track “Missin U,” an urgent club-ready cut with rattling drums where the charmer sweet talks his dream girl — appreciating everything from her drunk texts to their post-sex breakfasts. But then as it slips into its hook, synth horns and a slick bass guitar sweeps the track into a gorgeous jazz-sounding throwback. It has a balanced feel the 37-year-old singer will hopefully embrace in the future.
Unfortunately, the one time prince-turned-king of R&B refuses to unseat himself from the throne without attempting to pander to the new inhabitants of the genre’s ever-changing kingdom. Usher spends an unfortunate amount of the album sounding less like himself — a smooth chart-topping crooner with umpteen hit records — and more like this era’s crop of melodic rappers and pseudo-singers.
Usher nabs the style for several Love songs, starting with the Young Thug collaboration “No Limit,” letting each drawn out word tumble before hooks that are (thankfully) sung. The same goes for “Let Me,” which samples Ready For The World’s 1986 slow jam “Love You Down.” “Downtime” is even more derivative, sounding more like a moody creeper from Drake than a fresh number from Usher. The Metro Boomin-produced “Make U A Believer” is a full-on trap soul cut that finds Usher validating his allegiance to his lady by the fact that he enjoys giving her oral (“I serenade them cookies”) and turns off his cell phones in her presence. At best, tracks in this vein are moderately enjoyable, but far from unique or memorable.
Among the clunkers, however, lies a stud in the form of “Crash,” a down-tempo electo-pop track similar to his 2012 Diplo-helmed smash “Climax.” His falsetto rarely makes an appearance on the album, but radiates here. It’s a wonder why Usher didn’t choose to fully take Hard II Love this route. It seems he’s still trying to compete with R&B’s young guns. Artists like Tory Lanez and RCA Records label mate Bryson Tiller have based their young careers on the delivery method (singing and stretching rap lyrics to give them a conversational, spoken word feel) as the desired vehicle for their gloomy love stories and boastful anthems. But Usher’s work is best when he stays true to his skill set.
His vocal range and power is more of a commodity than ever, but oddly enough isn’t as much of a necessity as it used to be, when Usher was flourishing even a decade ago, as more R&B-leaning artists employ Auto-Tune or take a more hip-hop approach to their music. Acts like Chris Brown and Frank Ocean utilize both. In an August interview with Flaunt, Usher recalls a recent trip to Cuba, speaking about a longing to connect to his African roots and his love for Afrobeat. This album would have been an excellent place to explore that world. To get weird and go left, like his peer Alicia Keys has with her summer single “In Common.”
The transition from chart-topping pop star to contemporary R&B mainstay is different for each artist. But the answer to Usher’s identity crisis on wax may lie in the crevices of Hard II Love (there are just enough gooey, ad-libbed coos and runs throughout the album to tease fans of his actual skills).
When Billboard spoke with Usher in 2014, he had just released “Good Kisser,” a cheeky single that was followed by the Nicki Minaj pairing “She Came To Give II Give It II U.” The funked out tracks set the tone for a forthcoming album that promised the next phase of the artist’s musical career that would perhaps align with James Brown grooves and soulful work. Hard II Love, however, is an effort that’s significantly less adventurous than its predecessor, 2012’s Looking 4 Myself.
The icon’s face on Hard II Love’s cover art is seen in the form of a bust, symbolic of the album’s themes — a former playboy deep into a serious relationship (Usher is currently in his second marriage), wrestling down his old ways whilst recognizing his imperfections. The sculpture’s cracks and flaws could also represent how time erodes even the most romanticized figures. If he continues to tread on oft-traveled paths instead of exploring new territory, this could be true for Usher’s musical legacy. History’s always been more fond of originators.