Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend your week with. This week's is Hard II Love, the 8th album from Usher.
It seems impossible to consider, especially for those of us who experienced our first dances with the opposite sex in middle school gyms to his music, but Usher Raymond IV has been making hit records and been a godhead on R&B radio for 20 years. He hasn’t even needed a “comeback” narrative; he never even went away. He holds smash hits across three decades, and until Adele seemed like he’d be the last artist to receive a Diamond album certification from the RIAA (thanks to Confessions). He’s one of the few artists to make it out of the nostalgia trap of the ‘90s alive and intact, and to make vital music the whole time (sorry Jay Z). Without us ever really publically discussing it, Usher quietly became our generation’s Marvin Gaye; an R&B artiste plugging away at classic jams that define an entire generation (they both even have a divorce record). We’re all going to hear “Love in This Club” and “My Way” and “Yeah!” and “Climax” and “Caught Up” and “U Got It Bad” at every wedding until we die, and no one even has any complaints about that.
You might be able to add “No Limit,” the hit single from his new Hard II Love, to that list, even though it’s only been a couple weeks. A song that stretches a metaphor about the seminal New Orleans rap crew and Usher’s seminal bedroom skills to its near breaking point—but never becomes corny, somehow—and features probably the most coherent Young Thug verse ever. It’s a shame it didn’t get pushed to radio in May or June; it’s the song of September, and should have been song of the summer. I heard it at a club this weekend and people came unglued in the way they come unglued to any number of Usher songs; they were finger pointing, grinding on their partners, and screaming a lot.
Hard II Love is Usher’s eighth LP, and while it’s tempting to write something into the four-and-a-half years between this and his last one—the Pitchfork-approved Looking 4 Myself, thanks to its Diplo-produced single, “Climax”—he also took four years off between Confessions and Here I Stand. Sure, he had trouble making anything stick on radio in the years since—he even resorted to giving away songs in Cheerio boxes—but Hard II Love, in a lot of ways, deserves the critical swelling of support Looking 4 Myself got; Usher blends the needs to make radio smashes in 2016 with ‘90s bump and grind, the sound of new and old Atlanta and Metro Boomin beats, gets Future to be Future Vandross again (“Rivals” deserves to be the next single), and makes another classic in the “I’m a dirtbag and cheated on my girl, but I swear I’m not a bad guy” genre (“Need U”).
Looking 4 Myself felt like a reaction to the newfangled PBR&B the kids like Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weekend were making in 2012—and it should be noted Usher beat both those dudes to drop an LP of alternative R&B—Hard II Love is more “traditional;” while it features young guns like Future and Thug and Metro, it sounds as much like peak 2004-era Usher as it does 2016 R&B. “Missin’ U” is a good encapsulation of that push-pull between old and new—it starts with a chopped & screwed verse and beat that sounds like an A$AP Mob cut sung by Usher, and then the chorus comes in, and the clouds part, and Usher swings through on a unicorn. Elsewhere, Ready for the World’s “Love You Down” provides a lush bed for “Let Me” and 2 Live Crew and Lil Jon samples make “Bump” transform from a pretty straight piano ballad into a post-club grind down.
Hard II Love feels like less of an “event” record than any Usher album since probably his debut, and that’s partly due to Usher seeming like he needs music less. Hard ends with “Champions,” an unbelievably corny and washed song he recorded for Hands of Stone, the Roberto Duran biopic where Usher played Sugar Ray Leonard. Usher isn’t devoted to music full time anymore, but he is committed to the Usher brand so fully he’d derail his album for that song. But here’s the thing; he can spend the next 20 years of his career quietly churning out more albums and more wedding standards; he’s the most enduring R&B singer of his generation already. The rest—no matter how much it rules, and make no mistake, Hard II Love rules—is just icing on the cake.