Usher is modern day R&B. Take 2004’s Confessions, and try to argue that R&B hasn’t progressed to what it is today because of that record, especially with the younger talent coming out of Atlanta these past couple of years. Like a The Life of Pablo-style homage to Atlanta R&B, Future, Young Thug & Metro Boomin, are all here on Hard II Love. However, he’s been influential to even more than the three features listed here, as artists such as Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Omarion, Jason Derulo, Trey Songz and Drake might not even exist without inspiration from Usher’s career.
On his eighth studio album, Hard II Love shows Usher returning to the sound and honest feeling of Confessions. The record has taken some criticism for it being “too little too late” or declaring Usher as “irrelevant” in 2016, but if anything, Hard II Love is a clear departure from his pop hits like “OMG” or “DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again,” and a return to his more R&B/hip-hop days of Confessions hits like “Yeah!” or “Caught Up.”
Usher told Complex that Hard II Love is along the same vein as Beyoncé’s Lemonade, in that since women have been vocal about the way men treat them, then men should take that step as well and “take ownership for the shit we do.” “As long as you still living,” he says, “you have an opportunity to make it better.” And if that’s not proof enough that the Confessions style Usher is back, then turn to tracks like “Down Time,” my favorite on the record, or the title track “Hard II Love.”
If anything, I’d even make the argument that Usher is genre-bending and innovating as much as other artists in the genre or even just as much as he always has, even with his long run of pop hits. Tracks like “Missin U” even blatantly have multiple genres within the same song. The opening tracks like “Need U,” “Missin U,” and “Bump,” the latter of which co-written by The-Dream, have a “Jam” by Michael Jackson feeling, and in that simliar sense a Justin Timberlake feel as well. The “Missin U” lower vocals might seem a bit corny, especially the lyrics, but no one can deny that it has that Timberland production feel that’s been on every Timberlake record since Justified.
Hard II Love shows an Usher who can still write R&B and be commercially introspective, even if it’s not to the extent that it was back in 2004. Nonetheless, there’s no contract that says Usher has to share his whole life and inner-most thoughts with us through music. It might be something that plays best for artists like Frank Ocean, but Usher is a whole different kind of artist. If anything, Usher does what every other R&B artist has ever done: make love-dance-sex music. Usher even takes it a step further by embracing the trap crooners of Atlanta like Young Thug and Future and making heavily trap-influenced music with the artists that have been influenced by him.
Hard II Love is a welcome return to an R&B Usher, and an Usher that makes multiple hits per record instead of just one or two decent singles. Barring the ending track, and some of the eight-minute track “Tell Me,” this record is everything I’d want and expect from Usher in 2016. “I’m stronger than ever now” he declares on the track “Stronger.” Backed by an entire chorus, sounding like what R. Kelly did at the end of R. with “I Believe I Can Fly,” it has a similar resounding impact. To me, it’s all huge for Atlanta, a city booming in hip-hop/rap/R&B music as much as Chicago this past year, and maybe the most endearing Usher record to date.