The Curious Case of Usher Raymond
“I fucked up.”
That simple-yet-straight-to-the-point declaration kicks off Hard II Love, Usher Raymond IV's eighth (!) and most recent studio album. And, for whatever my opinion's worth, Hard II Love is Usher's best album since 2008's Here I Stand. Usher's blunt confession to begin Hard II Love is strong at best and effective at worst; the album deals with topics ranging from the validity of monogamy to longing for the significant other who got away. But, for whatever reason, Usher – grown man that he is – sounds slightly off delivering it.
Which brings me to the thesis of this essay: I have absolutely no clue what kind of music Usher Raymond IV, age 38, is supposed to make in the year of our Lord 2016.
Since releasing Here I Stand, an distinctly mature album for a then-29-year-old, Usher has seemingly chosen to age backwards. Up until Hard II Love, each attempt felt clunky and, even worse, contrived.
Initially presented as a fairly unrepentant Lothario in the early 1990s, Usher's first single, "Call Me a Mack," was released two months before his fifteenth birthday. By 1997's My Way, he seems totally comfortable in his role, singing about leaving his current girlfriend for one of their mutual friends on "You Make Me Wanna..." and putting his hands in places he's apparently never seen on "Nice & Slow." Read this excerpt from Genius's description of the title track:
"Here, Usher’s macking skills are on full display. The character in this song is talking to the boyfriend of the character’s love interest how his girl likes him better. His reasons include satisfying her better sexually than her boyfriend does; having more fun together; and not neglecting her needs. The character’s voice says his competition’s girlfriend is in fact cheating on him and it doesn’t matter because, 'You can get mad if you want to. Say whatever you want. But she still gon' give it up.'"
Wordy and quite hilarious to actually read, but it does encapsulate just how trifling 1997 Usher is. Considering how raunchy Usher was getting on record at the ripe-old age of 19, it came as something of a surprise to find his next album, 2001's 8701, full of love songs. The album's two biggest singles, "U Got It Bad" and "U Don't Have to Call," feature music videos highlighting Usher's inability to get over his girlfriend, only to have Uncle Godfather Puff Daddy remind him that HE'S TWENTY-TWO YEARS OLD. 2004's Confessions is so grown that he finds time to lecture other men about relationships while theoretically dealing with likely the most-adult mistake an adult can make. The naughtiest songs on the whole album are centered around catching twerks and the pettiest innuendo recorded on vinyl.
He leans ever deeper into the grown-ass-man route on Here I Stand; from a 2008 New Yorker article:
"Usher’s new album, “Here I Stand,” is the work of a newlywed. The challenge here is to convince us that he is a married and responsible man—grown and sexy, as R. & B. for people over thirty has come to be called—without sacrificing the louche, frictionless sense of play that made him famous. Now the singer whose catalogue is based on cheating, flirting, breaking up, and apologizing is forced to stay in place [and] rhyme with his press kit."
Full disclosure: I really enjoy Here I Stand. Nonetheless, I can understand why folks wouldn't. And despite the fact it received generally positive reviews upon release, the bad reviews were really bad. Alongside its tepid 2.5/5 star rating, Rolling Stone wrote, "[N]ow that [Usher's] got the American Dream, he sounds like he's stopped trying." Slant Magazine argued the songs on Here I Stand are "almost always just one notch above mediocrity." The general argument seemed to be that Usher, at twenty-nine years old, was washed up. Truth be told, that argument didn't seem absurd to make. It almost felt like he'd grown up too fast.
I don't know if Usher began internalizing those critiques, and I doubt he'd admit it if he did. Regardless, post the marriage he rhapsodized about on Here I Stand, he seemed resolved to prove ... something. Public perception of him clearly changed, and in working to show the world he was still the guy from his teenage years, he instead came across as a guy trying too hard. "Daddy's Home" was creepy, to put it kindly. "Lil Freak" is an amazing song with an amazing instrumental if you can look past the lyrics detailing Usher's demand that any woman who truly wants his affection recruit another woman for a threesome.
And that putrid "OMG" song. There aren't 4 songs I hate more than "OMG." That's not hyperbolic. I don't care where it landed on the Billboard charts. I don't care Usher got to perform it at the Super Bowl. That song stinks. It reeked of Usher trying to ride whatever the wave was at the moment, and I hate that "OMG" worked, because it encouraged him to continue making more terrible EDM songs. Usher Raymond, musical child of Puffy Combs and Babyface and Jermaine Dupri and L.A. Reid, was making music – regularly – with Diplo and Max Martin. Whatever, man.
(I'm also not linking to that song, clearly. If you want to hear that one, you're on your own.)
The music wasn't good. It might've been selling, but it wasn't good. I still haven't listened to Raymond v. Raymond or Looking 4 Myself start-to-finish. The day that happens may never come. I won't pretend like there weren't a couple songs that caught my attention ("Hot Tottie" with JAY Z on Raymond v. Raymond; "Climax" on Looking 4 Myself), but the rest he could've kept.
I should probably explain why I care. 8701 is the first album I bought with my own money without my parent's supervision. Yes, my own money was my $20 allowance from my dad, and yes, no parental supervision means he let me go into Target by myself because he didn't feel like getting out the car. So?
Anyways, I'd all but conceded Usher was washed up. So, imagine my surprise: May 5, 2014, as I'm lying in my Twin XL dorm bed counting the seconds until my undergraduate graduation, I come across this. I adore "Good Kisser;" I think it's a dope song regardless, but I especially appreciated how that song was immediately and distinctly Usher's. I listened to it on repeat all day, convinced it would get to #1 in the country and return Usher to his hitmaking glory. I got even more excited when "She Came to Give It to You," complete with Pharrell production and a very good Nicki Minaj feature, surfaced a few weeks later. They were – and continue to be – really good songs: mature without sounding old; tongue-in-cheek without being corny.
Neither of those songs caught on. The song that did? "I Don't Mind," featuring Juicy J, in which Usher professes his unconditional love for a stripper. Again, whatever. Yet, regardless of how I feel about that song, it seemed to provide some sort of musical clarity for him; pressed to deliver an album date, Usher repeatedly declined, likely reeling from the lack of relative success of what I'm sure he hoped would be his two lead singles. But "I Don't Mind"'s success likely emboldened Usher to record more songs like it.
None of the songs on Hard II Love are as painfully hokey as "I Don't Mind," but that song would definitely fit on the album. Nearing 40, Usher spends Hard II Love's 58 minutes actively reminding folks that he's not really that old. And hey, if Robert Kelly and Jamie Foxx can get away with pretending like they're 25 when age 50 soon come, 38-year-old Usher should be able to sing about whatever he damn well pleases. Sometimes it can be a bit too obviously manufactured, like his reluctance on "Rivals" to give his companion a romantic title despite the fact he's never been gun-shy about marriage in real-life, or the gratuitous cursing throughout this record even though his albums during his 20s were very light on swearing. It's certainly an interesting transition for him, given the current state of R&B, but I got through that album relieved he didn't play himself. It's delicate: as a not-old man, Usher is clearly eager to put his youthfulness in his music, but all we can remember is an even-younger Usher who seemed overeager to prove his maturity.
I have no idea what Usher's next project will sound like, or if he's even considering making another album soon. Considering the evidence, it'll likely sound like whatever's the wave of the moment. But, a silver lining: Usher's better at doing 2017 R&B than the children. Maybe – just maybe – he's actually aging backwards. I think we’ve found our R&B Benjamin Button.