Usher: Hard II Love

It’s record number eight for Usher Raymond IV, the 75 million record selling artist, and one of the main figureheads of R&B for at least 10 years now. His last effort, Looking 4 Myself, was released in 2012, when EDM was alive and well. So while that album could get away with using a dance sound, we’re living in a very different musical landscape now. Fortunately, Usher’s new album, Hard II Love, has shifted with the times also.

Perhaps a little predictably, Usher has followed suit with Rihanna, Drake, and the other urban big hitters, who have been championing minimal, progressive R&B of late. In fact, the influence of Drizzy is tattooed across this record, particularly when Usher switches from singing to melodic rapping, and the odd n-bomb that you wouldn’t naturally associate with Mr Raymond IV.

Nonetheless, it turns out that his use of a trap-hip-hop-R&B sound isn’t a bad thing. Opening song, Need U, begins with Usher’s trademark exasperated muttering. In fact, his fans will be pleased to hear many of Usher’s best characteristics in this track – his velvety crooning, soothing multi-tracked backing vocals, and a generally laid back singing style with plenty of dramatic pauses that he has always utilised so well.

Missin U also begins with Usher speaking, this time in conversation with an unknown lady, as he explains to her he wants a woman with 'a nice thin waist, fat ass, and soft little lips'. Always worth knowing. It’s a cleverly produced track – minimal trap in the verses, and then a rousing, big-band style chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on Broadway.

Songs like Downtime and Crash rely on a limited palette, mostly just a sub bass, the beat, one synth line, and the many voices of Usher being multi-tracked. Lyrically, it’s nothing new – mostly from start to finish, Usher is letting us know the many pros and cons of being a master romancer, as he has done on all of his albums. Of course, it would be churlish to expect a major change of tact from such a renowned superstar.

This is a very solid effort from Usher, with his move into more minimal territory coming off very well.

Make U A Believer takes an entire tree’s worth of leaves out of Drake’s book – the punching trap beat, darkly detuned hip hop electronic music, and sung-rapping in the verses (and normal rapping in the bridge). It’s a decent track, but you do almost wonder if Usher should have to share royalties for the song with the Toronto rapper. Following song, FWM, has a more fun vibe, with its trance-style synths, and one of the album’s catchier choruses.

Usher’s albums often have a lengthy epic, with Moving Mountains probably being his best Wagnerian length song since its release in 2008. But with Tell Me, weighing in at eight-and-a-half minutes, we could have a new contender. It really is a huge track, with contrast between the smaller scale verses, and a gigantic chorus in which Usher sings, 'I want to hold you ‘till I can’t feel again / Until your soul lets me in,' backed up brilliantly by a unison synth line.

There was always a danger with calling your album Hard II Love that listeners might feel the same way about the music. But this is a very solid effort from Usher, with his move into more minimal territory coming off very well, even if the nods to Drake and Rihanna are none too subtle. That aside, Usher has rarely put a foot wrong, despite being eight albums deep now, and deserves an enormous amount of respect for that. Expect several more albums in which we hear how he’s still struggling with having women fall at his feet.

Listen to: FWM, Tell Me, Stronger