At the open, one would be forgiven for wondering if the first song off Usher’s latest album, Hard II Love, was plucked up from the Confessions cutting-room floor and put away for safekeeping. Certainly there are more instances throughout the 15 track LP where comparisons can be drawn between this new offering and the album that cemented Usher’s place as the contemporary king of r&b all those years ago. However, with a nod to more current trends and the works of the new generation of voices, where the similarity truly lies is in the fact that not since that 2004 album has an Usher album sounded so focused and cohesive.
Since Confessions, Usher has attempted but never quite managed to create another masterpiece of modern r&b. With a lot of energy spent on creating dancefloor fillers, the albums as entire pieces of work suffered from being stuffed full of confusion (and fillers). With this latest offering, there is no pandering to current trends in the hopes of creating a standalone banger (the closest we get are the unmemorable Young Thug and Future features) and Hard II Love is infinitely better for it as it puts focus on blending Usher’s fine r&b and pop sensibilities and bringing them to the forefront.
Lengthy list of collaborators aside, Need U is where the Confessions comparisons begin. While the spoken-word intro comes come across a little put on at first, the song develops into a soaring display of his abilities to blend current pop and r&b trends with those he has already shown a keen knack for in the past. The interlude on Missin U, a conversation with Priyanka Chopra, feels a little forced and awkward and is where things start to become a little cringe-inducing at his description of what he wants in a woman. However, there is a recovery as the song itself begins, taking on a Steely Dan sample and developing into a bright, commanding refrain.
This is an album with the expanse and production to let Usher’s voice breathe the way it should and there is no greater display of that than Crash. Coming in mid-way through, the current single lifted from the LP is the shining glory of the entire piece. A flurry of smooth, steady, synthy beats over which Usher’s falsetto reaches new heights at the refrain while the verses remain rich and full, it’s one of the album’s ‘hit repeat’ moments as it fades out.
Pharrell-produced FWM and the final track Champions equally feel out of place, threatening the overall focused cohesion of Hard II Love. While Champions (off the Hands of Stone soundtrack) with its Latin percussion and guitar and lyrics sung partly in Spanish (Rubén Blades) is perhaps a tad cheesy lyrically, it’s more of a surprising change of pace than anything else. FWM, however, is almost painfully sugary and at odds with the overall aesthetic of the album.
At eight and a half minutes, Tell Me is sparse yet sensual, fluttering in its slow build and completely driven by Usher’s fine falsetto. Free from over top flourishes and instead fleshed out with soft synthesisers and a steady, slow beat balanced just enough by the way of layered vocals, Usher’s strength in his ability to take a song through almost the entirety of his expansive of his vocal range whilst never sacrificing clarity or inflection is reinforced.
The album’s title track is the epitome of the sparse, night-cloaked styling worked on throughout the album, a guitar-picked track with echoey vocals the focus as they lay overtop as he admits he knows he’s “hard to love” and that doing so is a free-fall, a gamble. Stronger, the second last track, deals with the 2012 death of his stepson. An emotionally wrought track in a entirely different sense, the chilling piano-led ballad is bolstered by a gospel choir and paints a portrait of both grief and resilience. This is Usher at his most vulnerable.
While Hard II Love certainly benefits from the more focused approach that comes with playing to Usher’s real, tangible strengths rather than the hit and miss EDM bangers of previous LPs, there is still something missing. It is notable that Usher has refused to bend to the whims of current trends in an effort to remain relevant. Rather he uses the tools he is already equipped with – a distinctive voice that remains cuts above the rest and an ease with being intimately emotional (Usher himself described this album as one for men who “don’t think love is cool to do”). Perhaps the inclusion of last year’s Chains might have made things feel a little more complete as it was certainly surprising to find the album was lacking such a poignant and politically potent track.
Overall this is a more considered and mature album from an industry icon who possesses a voice beyond compare. Usher is 37 and eight albums in; his latest LP a more self-assured, focused and reliable offering – a true r&b album with a gentle nod to the contemporary. Unfortunately Hard II Love is just that: reliable. It’s easy to listen to, it lets Usher’s voice breathe, where it has been constricted across his last few LPs. It just isn’t quite as memorable as I’d hoped.
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