‘Hard II Love’ Is The Usher Album You’ve Wanted Since ‘8701’
Back in the early 2000’s when Usher’s highly anticipated third album 8701 was released, he was one of R&B’s newer faces and was brimming with potential. He could really sing, he could really dance, and he seemed intent to produce quality music that honored those who came before him and stayed true to he was. But at some point, he stepped out on all of that promise. Suddenly the cool R&B kid had become some guy obsessed with dance beats and techno pop. But on Hard II Love, he is finally back.
Released on TIDAL on September 12th, Hard II Love is Usher’s 8th studio album. It shows him attempting the balance the different R&B personas he has held in a career that has spanned over 2 decades. And for the most part, he is successful. He brings back his full singing voice, range and all, that have taken a backseat to current trends in his recent releases. And nearly every song on this 15 track set is grounded in tried and true R&B. The only time when things start to become questionable is when he turns to more experimental efforts.
Right out of the gate, he opens with “Need U”, a heater laced with regretful dialogue (props for the Priyanka Chopra feature). This is instantly reminiscent of his Confessions period, where he made his songs more personal. Sonically, he borrows heavily from Michael Jackson here; it’s all smooth groove through the chorus and laid back vocals through the verses. And if he had kept this sentiment throughout this album, he might have been accused of just putting out a MJ tribute album, but he also would have produced a modern-day classic that flew in the face of fads.
Next up, “Missin U” brings a heavy beat to the party, and Usher rides it with ease. Then it flips on the chorus, bringing in live instrumentation from drums, horns, and bass. It’s a nice nod to R&B’s formative years that doesn’t get much mainstream attention anymore.
Then there are songs like “FWM” where Usher course corrects the dance-leaning music that he’s recently been partial to. Yes, this song sounds like it is straight out of Drake’s songbook, but it easily proves that a Drake song can be improved upon by someone with better vocals (no shade). “No Limit” featuring Young Thug, is that Atlanta-themed song Usher seemingly must include on any album, and the beat knocks just like it should. I could definitely do without the Young Thug feature as it feels tacked on and superfluous, but the song itself is definitely a winner.
From there, Usher ventures into exploratory territory. “Bump” pulls from nouveau sounds, “Crunk & B”, and traditional slow jam influences to craft a mash-up that may feel foreign to your ears, but is a clear success. And his best Mariah Carey falsetto is the perfect complement to the hard beat. The sound is fresh and undeniably catchy, yet sophisticated and populist. “Let Me” is another song that fits right in that same sweet spot. Here he samples Ready For The World’s “Let Me Love You Down”, using its earworm of a hook as a foundation for another midtempo track that feels entirely new but 100% Usher. I’d bet that staying right here in this lane, Usher could really forge a lane for himself that is distinct from the rest of the R&B pretenders in the industry.
If there is one thing that these tracks prove, it’s that Usher is far more successful taking risks than trying to follow what his contemporaries are doing. Songs like “Make U a Believer”, “Mind of A Man”, and “Rivals” feel like Usher wanted a few songs in the vein of the Bryson Tillers of the world. And he got what he wanted, but they feel decidedly less distinctive than the balance of the album.
Usher brings things really close to home on “Stronger”. He sings about the grief he has dealt with from the 2012 death of his stepson Kile Glover, and the tribute, even set over tribal drums, comes across as heartfelt. Adding a gospel choir to back him up didn’t hurt either.
Still, with all that Usher has going on with this album, “Tell Me” is his most interesting moment. Calling a song that runs 8 1/2 minutes long a “moment” may be a bit of an understatement, but here takes a track that might have been a Sade leftover and turns it into anthemic sex music. There’s no better way to describe it. His voice dances from falsetto to soaring, reminding us that Usher can really sang if he wants (just in case we forgot). His ability to hold your attention through the whole 8 1/2 minutes is a testament to how brilliant his performance is.
On this album, Usher seems to have finally come into his own. He’s not merely mimicking the artists he listened to growing up and he’s not fighting to keep up with the joneses. On Hard II Love, Usher is finally carving out a musical identity all his own. And this 8701 fan is glad to see Usher become the artist we all knew he could be.
Photo credit: Usher Instagram
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