Four years ago, it felt like Usher Raymond IV had broken new ground. On “Climax,” his lovelorn pathos was married to Diplo’s frostbitten production, making for a revelatory experiment: a mainstream R&B institution looking ahead to the future, forgoing expectations for something fresh. But it turned out to be a brief peak—his subsequent album, the confounding Looking 4 Myself, failed to tie its international influences together into a cohesive effort. It was clear that for the time being, Usher wasn’t going to pursue the capricious electronic texture of “Climax” to its conclusion, as he gave equal time to songs-in-the-key-of-LMFAO like “Scream” and “Numb.”
Now, it feels like Usher is a spectator in a genre he once dominated—a man adrift whose sales no longer synch up to his status as an industry superstar. Hard II Love, his recently released eighth record, is his best effort since 2004’s Confessions, and maybe the most cohesive of his career. It features Mr. Raymond as the TIDAL-sponsored blooming chrysanthemum that he is, taking a trip from the dance floor to the bedroom, where the synths embody lustful mirages instead of neon lights. Usher’s hits have long either been relationship fables (“My Boo,” “U Remind Me”) or club staples (“Yeah,” “Love in This Club”); on Hard II Love, he pulls away from his EDM experiments to find a stabler core.
Save for the candy-flavored “FWM,” the guitar-backed title track, and the very unfortunate string of platitudes called “Champions,” Hard II Love’s sonic palette is sparse and nocturnal. The nefarious synth line that threads through opener “Need U” lays on the Intimate Usher motif a bit thick, but major chords flitter about to make the push from staid to engrossing. Throughout the record, Usher’s mellifluous vocals have more than enough room to breathe through a soundscape that’s dark and amorous, but rarely overwrought.
On “Crash,” his falsetto’d “Would you mind if I still loved you?” approaches sublimity. “Tell Me” is eight-and-a-half minutes long, which might be a tall task for an Usher track in 2016, but his high register and melisma carry enough sex-positive zest to fulfill the ambition. Yes, Hard II Love is bereft of flame emoji-warranting bangers (“No Limit,” which features a quaint Young Thug performance, peaked at a decent No. 33 on the Hot 100), but it is the most complete portrait of a persona whose charm lies in vulnerability and sketches of intimacy.
But the lack of that all-encompassing single is a felt absence, as radio juggernauts are what made Usher a generational icon. Hard II Love’s inward, hermetic focus feels too minor for an artist of his once-stratospheric caliber. Even if some of Usher’s earlier albums were an assorted mix, they contained the singular magic that’s mostly been reduced to stardust residue here. Committing to a definitive aesthetic—one where he isn’t awkwardly trend-hopping—comes with limited returns, as the singer hasn’t spent enough time sinking into whatever he wants his sound to be.
Usher has been A&R’d since he was a teenaged New Jack Swing new jack in the early ’90s. His material has been trimmed and packaged for mass consumption; even labeling Confessions as his most personal album is a marketing construct. Usher labels Hard II Love as the album where he finally reveals himself: “At this point in my life, I can’t sit in a facade of who I am,” he recently told Complex.
While that’s good and noble, he’s given us glimpses of this Real Adult personality before, only to hedge his bets as a party monster: 2008’s “Papers,” an aching chronicle of divorce, begat the comically pandering “OMG.” For its all its pleasures, Hard II Love isn’t strong enough to convince you he’s decided to stick to a lane. At 37 years old, is this romantically wounded record the real Usher Raymond IV? If so, it still feels like something’s been left unsaid.