It may have escaped your notice that Usher released one of 2016’s most excellent singles because “Crash” — a glorious synthetic breakup ballad that reminds me of Frank Ocean wistfully vibing out to LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” — has not become an inescapable cultural monolith, nor have music critics showered it with copious amounts of heartfelt praise.
Regarding the former point, “Crash” hasn’t exactly been ignored by radio programmers, it just isn’t experiencing a moment like many of Usher’s past hits. His silky falsetto theatrics are apparently so agile here that they sidestepped the zeitgeist completely. As for the latter complaint, the one about critics failing to rally around “Crash” despite its gleaming transcendent beauty: Although the song does not lack hooks, none of them are of the narrative variety. “Crash” does not have a superstar producer or arranger attached like Diplo and Nico Muhly on 2012’s triumphant convergence of worlds “Climax,” nor does it feature goofy lyrics about being in love with a stripper like 2014’s irresistibly charming “I Don’t Mind.” It’s just another fantastic track from a guy who can still be counted on to deliver them every couple years.
“Crash” was our first preview of Hard II Love, the album Usher is releasing this Friday. Last time he released an LP — four years ago with Looking 4 Myself — my colleague Tom Breihan pointed out that Usher’s mid-career albums tended to reflect his real-life tabloid exploits, from scandalous breakup (Confessions) to marriage (Here I Stand) to divorce (Raymond V. Raymond). Looking 4 Myself represented a break from that trend; ostensibly it was about Usher embarking on a journey of self-exploration, but mostly it was a chance to flex his formidable pop pedigree in the context of the reigning electropop trend. This was Usher as we first knew him, as a singles artist.
Hard II Love is once again organized around a loose theme, namely that Usher is the kind of person whose selfish and/or self-destructive decisions make it difficult to maintain a romantic entanglement. In other words, he could have called it Confessions Part II if he didn’t already have a song called “Confessions Part II.” But as with Looking 4 Myself, I’m not sure I would have noticed the unifying factors if not for the album title pointing it out. Which is not a problem: Even at the peak of Usher as an album artist (2004’s diamond-certified Confessions), he was still about singles first and foremost. The first half’s immaculate pile of radio jams, from “Yeah!” to “Burn” to “Caught Up” to “Confessons Part II,” far outshines the deep cuts in public memory. His other albums present a similar story; the guy is long overdue for a greatest hits collection.
Hard II Love continues that trajectory: It hangs together fine, but rather than a coherent artistic statement with a defined arc, it’s more of a strong playlist dotted with lots of standout tracks. And I do mean lots: The advance singles are hot smoking flames, from “Crash” to the hip-hop-leaning “No Limit” and “Rivals” — collabs with Young Thug and Future respectively — but Hard II Love’s bench is deep. “FWM” is jittery, understated electropop gold, “Downtime” beats Drake’s Views at its own game, “Missin U” is an exquisite Houston lurch, and “Make U A Believer” shows Usher is as comfortable within R&B radio’s current parameters as he was circa “You Make Me Wanna…” The string of ballads tacked on the end don’t even derail the momentum, even the eight-minute “Tell Me.” (Let’s just agree to forget about bonus track “Champions,” OK?)
The album suggests Usher will continue to make hits, headline arenas, and be one of the world’s most beloved musical superstars. And if that’s all Usher wants, we’re all lucky to have him. The guy’s natural singing prowess and effortless ability to jump across genre make him a national treasure. In just about every context, he sounds like a pro — even backed by underground rock veterans the Afghan Whigs. But I wonder if he isn’t selling himself short by just being the platonic ideal of a mainstream R&B singer. Given his bona fides, Usher could be a cultural monolith along the lines of Beyoncé if he so desired — not just a legacy artist continuing to prosper in his lane but a force of nature seizing control of the conversation.
There was a time when artists could successfully straddle the line between the worlds of pop and R&B, and Usher was certainly among those ranks. But given the current state of top-40 radio — which is all about electronic pop and co-opted dancehall these days, and which seems unusually allergic to R&B — the door seems closed for now. Beyoncé has sidestepped that circus through a combination of sharp songwriting, artful presentation, wide-ranging vision, and genius branding. At this point she’s operating on a different level from the rest of the music industry; remember the VMAs?
By contrast, the world isn’t breathlessly clamoring for Hard II Love, none of the singles has generated enough interest to morph into a meme, and Usher’s next tour does not seem likely to capture anyone’s imagination. Usher is not playing into pop’s event-album economy, and as opposed to all the struggling indie bands that slip through the cracks for lack of a timely narrative, he’s been so popular for so long that he doesn’t have to. After hearing his would-be Black Lives Matter anthem “Chains,” I’m not sure the world would even be better off if Usher delivered a statement LP the likes of Lemonade. But it would be nice if sheer excellence was still enough to grab people’s attention.
Travis Scott can apparently sell the kids anything, including repurposed generic eagle stuffed animals, so maybe it’s not so surprising that the Houston rapper’s sophomore LP Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week despite Scott’s career being built entirely on his association with more talented people. And anyhow, it’s a slow week; McKnight only logged 88,000 equivalent units, including 53,000 in traditional sales, so it’s not like he could hold his own against a genuine blockbuster. It’s actually less than the 85,000 units the #3-debuting Rodeo started with last year. Still… Travis Scott! At #1! What a time.
Rockers A Day To Remember follow at #2 with 67,000 units/62,000 sales for Bad Vibrations. It’s a career best chart placement for the band by far — Billboard says their previous peak was #11 for 2010’s What Separates Me From You — but if pure sales were still the only factor on the albums chart, Bad Vibrations would be entering at #1. As it stands, streaming boosted Travis Scott to an easy win. Sorry, A Day To Remember and your luddite fans!
There are no more top-10 album debuts this week, so we’re on to the notable singles action:
The Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” stays at #1 for a fourth straight week. Twenty One Pilots rise to #2 with “Heathens,” matching their career-best placement with “Stressed Out” earlier this year. Billboard notes that with the Chainsmokers and Twenty One Pilots at #1 and #2, it’s the first time duos have held down the top two spots on the Hot 100 in more than 31 years, since Tears for Fears and Wham! did it with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Everything She Wants” respectively.
Notably, the Chainsmokers and Twenty One Pilots each have a second song in the top 10 right now: the Chainsmokers’ Daya collab “Don’t Let Me Down” at #5 and Twenty One Pilots’ “Ride” at #6. Rihanna also continues to have two tracks in the top 10, the Calvin Harris team-up “This Is What You Came For” at #7 and “Needed Me” at #9. Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” reaches a new peak at #8, and the Charlie Puth/Selena Gomez duet “We Don’t Talk Anymore” jumps up to #10 to become Puth’s second top-10 hit and first as a lead artist.
Lady Gaga – “Perfect Illusion”
On one hand, this song feels repetitive and uninspired. On the other, whenever I write off a Gaga single on first brush, I usually regret it. On the other other hand, if this is Kevin Parker’s idea of a great pop song then maybe he should consider going back to rockism.
Celine Dion – “Recovering”
Here’s Celine Dion singing a piano ballad penned by P!nk. It might strike you as a little vanilla until you remember it’s probably about Dion processing the death of her husband and brother within the same week, and then it might wreck you — especially the “Tell him I love him” part at the end.
Years & Years – “Meteorite”
Another solid disco jam from one of the UK’s best recent pop upstarts.
Tink & My Digital Enemy – “Clocks”
This is a really cool electro-pop track starring Tink, who could make a whole career out of this sort of thing if rap and R&B don’t work out. I do wish the song was called “My Digital Enemy, Clocks” as I originally read it.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Drake is reportedly planning on surprising Rihanna with a love song for Christmas and he’s enlisted Kanye West to produce it. [In Touch]
- After walking in Tommy Hilfiger’s NYFW show, Gigi Hadid revealed in an interview that her BFF Taylor Swift “is starting to go back to work in the studio again.” [ET]
- Speaking of Swift, in an impromptu Twitter Q&A, Katy Perry said she would work with Swift if she said sorry. [Twitter]
- More Swift! She donated $5K to the family of a fan who died in a car accident. [Us]
- Mel B jokingly explained to James Corden why the Spice Girls will reunite as a trio (“because the other two bitches didn’t want to do it!”) and said their tour will probably start in London and “work our way around to see wherever else wants to see it.” [YouTube]
- Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande collaborate on “Faith,” a Ryan Tedder-penned song from the upcoming animated movie Sing. [Twitter]
- Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui had a mid-song breakdown at the group’s concert in Phoenix last week. [MTV]
- Superproducer Max Martin, ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, and songwriter Niclas Molinder have formed Music Rights Awareness, an organization that will educate musicians about their rights. [Music Rights Awareness]
- James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke primetime special won a Creative Arts Emmy for Best Variety Special, beating Adele In New York City and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. [Deadline]
- Ellen DeGeneres made Celine Dion sing lyrics by Nelly and LMFAO. [Ellen]
- Cops had to intervene when Chris Brown got into a heated argument with someone in the stands at a charity basketball tournament he was playing at USC. [TMZ]
- Beyoncé paused her show in St. Louis so one of her backup dancers could propose to her dance captain Ashley Everett. [Glamour]
- Snoop Dogg will receive the “I Am Hip Hop” award at the 11th annual BET Hip-Hop Awards airing 1/04. [Business Wire]
- Miranda Lambert has announced her new album The Weight Of These Wings out 11/18. [The Boot]
- Fans are speculating about the “Grammy award winning secret person” with whom Kesha says she’s collaborating on a “fuck off song.” [Instagram]
- DNCE’s self-titled debut album is out 11/18. [Twitter]
- Producer Rodney Jerkins and songwriter Ester Dean are replacing Timbaland as music supervisors on the new season of Empire. [Yahoo]