Album Review: Usher – Hard II Love

Edward Bowser September 14, 2016 16

Usher Hard II Love

Words by Edward T. Bowser, SoulInStereo.com

’s 2004 Confessions album is not only his greatest achievement, it’s his greatest curse.

Confessions is arguably R&B’s last classic album – and I’m talking legit classic here, not the forgettable “classics” half y’all hype up on Twitter and forget two weeks later. Confessions was not a flawless piece of work, but one that revamped the musical landscape, created a new sound (remember all the “Yeah” clones that album spawned?) and became synonymous with Usher himself. That’s the definition of a classic.

And the curse of a classic album is that the artist, while revered as one of the best of his generation, is now expected to match or surpass that one great work.

In 2016, the stakes are even higher – R&B is basically extinct on urban playlists. I mean, times are so hard that off-key rappers *cough*FUTURE*cough* and inconsistent pop stars *hack*RIHANNA*hack* are categorized as R&B.

That’s why fans have been craving a new album from Usher – he gave us Confessions before, he can do it again, right?

No.

Because let’s be real: Confessions was 12 years ago. It’s unfair – and nearly impossible – for an artist to faithfully recreate the factors that went into that piece nearly a decade ago.

Instead of looking back, Usher has evolved, and I can’t fault that. His last album, 2012’s divisive Looking 4 Myself, may have been disjointed but it was the right album for the right time – a maturing artist searching for a new sound.

I mean, it’s in the album title and everything.

Last year, we even laid out five things we needed from Usher’s next project – you can read those right here.

But unfortunately, Usher’s latest album, Hard II Love, the one fans hoped would finally turn the tide for modern R&B, isn’t about evolution. It’s devolution.

Usher’s hustling backwards.

Many R&B fans shook their heads after hearing the single “No Limit.” Yes, it’s brainless fun – a catchy beat, a ton of heavy handed yet quotable Master P references, and it’s danceable. But it’s all gimmicks, little singing and a tacked on Young Thug verse that all but begs programmers “PLEASE PLAY THIS SONG ON THE RADIO.” It’s a paint-by-numbers track that lesser artists drop to dominate charts for a three weeks before they wind up on the back of a milk carton. We know Usher can do better.

Sadly, he doesn’t do much better.

“Let Me” chops up Ready for the World’s “Let Me Love You Down” into a murky mess filled with verses plucked from a 8th grade talent show: “BMW new tints so dark the cops gotta squint.” Uh huh. “Make U a Believer” is even worse: “I like b****es, you like b****es, we can get b****es to keep a secret.” And don’t forget “FWM,” which is just “f*** with me” repeated over and over and over.

AND OVER.

Dude, you’re almost 40. Chill.

But don’t mistake me, the few times Usher actually gets serious about his craft, he proves why he’s still one of the greatest voices of our generation. “Tell Me” is the best vocal showcase here, featuring soaring notes and heartfelt inflections that make him peerless. But at more than 8 minutes long, it’s a bit too much of a good thing.

We hear a glimpse of those very same vocals on the schizophrenic “Missing U,” which alternates between a masterfully produced hook and jarring rap beat during the verses. It’s off-putting initially but gets better with repeat listens.

The same can’t be said for “Bump,” which starts with hearty vocals before Usher tosses all that out of the window for more pseudo-rapping. Look, I know the “experimental” tracks like “Bump” and “Down Time”  are all the rage these days, but leave the Mumble&B for the Bryson Tiller crowd. We ain’t got time for it.

That’s what makes Hard II Love, so, well hard to love. Usher is still great at what he does ­– the problem is that he refuses to do what he does best. He either ruins a perfectly good track like “Rivals” by letting Future sing karaoke in the background, or cripples solid songs like the pop-leaning “Crash” and soul-bearing title track with lethargic performances.

Have y’all seen Usher’s video for “No Limit?” It’s indicative of all that’s wrong with Hard II Love:

Usher prances around with young Internet dance sensations against a boring white background. What I’m sure was supposed to be a passing-the-torch moment, where Usher tips his hat to the new generation of artists winds up looking like the old guy at the club trying to hang with the young cats.

He’s no longer innovating. He’s imitating.

Listen, Usher’s never giving us another Confessions. R&B won’t grow from cloning 10 year old albums.

And R&B SURE ain’t gonna grow when one of its greatest artists resorts to cloning lesser acts 10 years younger than him.

I guess Usher’s still looking 4 himself.

Best tracks: “Missing U,” “Tell Me”

2.5 stars out of 5

Can’t get enough of Edd? For more album reviews, relationship talk, pop culture news and Keith Sweat hero worship, visit SoulInStereo.com and follow him on Twitter @etbowser.

16 Comments

  1. Coolness September 14, 2016 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    What’s so lethargic about his vocal performances on Crash and Hard II Love? Seems to me like you went out of your way to be negative.

  2. Yaya September 14, 2016 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    You started off making great points about what is considered “classic” now and how we shouldn’t expect Confessions 2.0 from Usher, but then you lost me. I actually wondered if you listened to the right album lol.

    I personal feel the issue is not with Usher, but with fans. They expect from him what no other artist is expected to give PERFECTION. Is this album perfect…nope, is it a damn good album..HELL YES. He gives us all the ranges of his voice on this album. He is actually singing. When I hear people say he is trying to be like the young artist, I am lost as to who they are talking about. R&B is on life support. This Tiller guy everyone said was the new Usher, now ya’ll think Usher is copying him?? Like you pointed out what is considered R&B is mostly non singing rappers.

    Usher evolving to me is a good thing. The lil rap sound he did on the album reminded me of him back in his nice & slow/you make me wanna days. He is basically doing all of Usher, but since so many other people have copied him….he is now considered the copy cat lol. No Limit to me is like his updated version of “yeah”. Was “Yeah” a deep song to you with amazing lyrics??? It’s just fun. Can you have fun?? I am not a Future or Young “Thug fan, but I got that 1) they are ATL and Usher was on his ATL flow this album 2) Yes, he wants to be current. Did you want him to bring back Luda…again? lol.

    I think people need to be fans of Usher or not. Stop expecting him to bend towards you. Listen to Confessions or 8701 if that is all you want.

    • Mike Says September 15, 2016 at 5:30 pm - Reply

      On point

  3. Omar September 15, 2016 at 6:12 am - Reply

    I get where you’re coming from. Initially I was turned off by the album, tracks like Hard II Love weren’t resonating with me, I took issue with the pseudo-rapping (even though that is something he has done from the start of his career) and I was surprised at times with the amount of cursing on the album.

    On second listen though I warmed to it. It actually is a strong project. His vocals are still insane and for the most part, lyrically, it is a well thought out and well crafted (except for the moments where he dumbs it down to keep up with the kids). He showed flashes of MJ on “Missin U”, “Bump” was very well produced and sung with decent lyrics (bar the rap segment), “No Limit” was surprisingly enjoyable, “Tell Me” is candidate for slow jam of the year (and I believe it’s 8 minutes for a very good reason – wink, wink) and “Hard II Love”, though subdued, is a very good concept song, asking you if you are prepared to stick or twist, hit the jackpot or go broke by taking a chance on love. There are other highlights such as “Mind Of A Man”, and “Stronger” and “Champions” closes out the album in reinvigorating and inspirational fashion.

    Only weak tracks were Crash (blatant commercial move) and Downtime (Rihanna imitation), I don’t think he really needed to rap but as above this is something he’s been doing for a while now (Nice & Slow springs to mind). It is unfair to demand another Confessions. I think it was clear from his last 3 releases – Here I Stand, Raymond v Raymond and Looking For Myself – that he had passed that stage in his career. He had and has continued to experiment with newer sounds and trendier production. Where that might not have come off for him with previous releases, it fares better here and to me is his best release since Confessions.

    Admittedly though next time I’d like a more traditional project with Usher riding that MJ wave a bit more, a bit like how R-Kelly did the Sam Cooke thing with Love Letter and Write Me Back.

    • Coolness September 15, 2016 at 8:42 am - Reply

      Well said. I initially was a bit uneasy with the rap-singing but like you mentioned, he’s been doing that since 1997’s My Way. It’s the same criticism Beyoncé gets even though she’s actually one of the pioneers of that style of singing (think Say My Name and Bug A Boo off The Writings On The Wall album). Hard II Love might be quite jarring on first listen but it’s a solid project. Lyrically, it’s very fleshed out and raw (even to the point of him cursing). However, his vocal mastery allows him to take songs that would’ve otherwise been rote for some of these new-age R&B cats, to a new level because. His vocal performances are well nuanced on this album. Tell Me is my favorite so far and so many people seem to have gravitated towards this track too because it takes the best of that sparse electronic production that was done so well with Climax and fuses it with more traditional slow jam elements like his own Can U Handle It.

      • Omar September 15, 2016 at 10:18 am - Reply

        It definitely needs a second listen to settle in right. And I agree, where a new wave singer would have made this album sound average, he makes the most of the material he has and through his vocal performances turns it into a very solid project. “Tell Me” is a monster of a song, strangely enough I thought of it as a hybrid between “Climax” and “Can’t U Handle It” as well.

        I also thought this album was very similar to Tank’s “SLP2”. Two veterans implementing modern, trendy production and calling upon big name features to the point where they could be seen as chasing trends. But purely because of their vocals, craft, songwriting, experience and approach to the music, the quality of the material is that much more better than if an artist in the mould of Bryson Tiller or PARTYNEXTDOOR (as good as they are in their respective lanes) were to have used the exact same material. A new wave singer wouldn’t have done those projects any justice in the way Usher did here and Tank on “SLP2”.

  4. Black Hikes September 15, 2016 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    UHHHHHH

    NO LIMIT

  5. Mike Says September 15, 2016 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    Well, I really like the album; it grows on one after a couple of repeats. Usher has a great voice, he sounds great even when he sings along to the contemporary stuff on the radio. From your review, its evident that you expect him to sound 2004 ish in 2016, not gonna happen obviously. When you have a catalog as legendary as he does, it’s a big man problem, people judge and compare his output to past works, even when time and sounds change.

    Every album should have a commercial and critical appeal and I think he does the balancing act well.

    Fave songs are ‘Mind of a Man’ and #FWM

    Love all eight minutes of sultry ‘Tell Me’ think the song is great when in the sack, if done right, only two repeats of the song will do ;-)

  6. Navy September 16, 2016 at 3:38 am - Reply

    I think this is honestly his best album post-Confessions, I’m very proud of the body of work Usher put together. I thought all was lost after the very mediocre ‘Raymond v Raymond and the unfocused, jarring ‘Looking For Myself’. The singles released since didn’t help either. BUT I will say Usher surprised me. Favorite songs : Tell Me, Downtime, Missing U, Stronger and so many more but I don’t wanna say half the album lol.

  7. Jeremy Burgess September 16, 2016 at 11:46 am - Reply

    This album is Hard II Love LMBO

  8. DiiJei September 25, 2016 at 2:05 am - Reply

    Okay so this may be lengthy..

    I totally agree, all while I DO still find value in his music on the H2L album. Usher was on track to cutting a new sound with Good Kisser but he and his team bailed on that campaign and then seemed to rework their vision for Usher’s new sound and image. It’s a damn shame. But that’s NOT to say at all that his current music is trash. It’s still superior to most R&B cats in my opinion. Love is at the heart of most of his songs, it’s just sonically safe within the R&B conventions of today. Ush could’ve kept it classic but trends got the best of him.

    . Personally I hate it when people complain about Ush just to complain and not support. I’ve bought every Usher album first week, if not first day, from the Confessions forward (including H2L).That said, I think it’s important to discern when people are just outright complaining, and when fans are being “critical” of Usher’s decisions. His fans should be able to enjoy him as much as they are critical of him. As long as it’s to make him better of course. The fact that so many were critical of him on L4M is definitely a contributing factor to why he came back to R&B in full stride. So with that being said I’ll share my gripes.

    I wish the classic old fashioned R&B had a bigger presence on this H2L album. Sure he has a handful of songs that sonically, vocally and lyrically that call back to old school R&B but for at least half the album has leaned toward the new sounds of R&B. I think he kept as good’a balance that I could probably never ask for but this album is severely lacking in classic R&B that we came love from and expect from veterans like Usher. Hell even the singles he has campaigned for, like Crash, was the closest to classic Ush that it got but has a pop crossover (which I have no complaints about). The gripe that I have and always said is that Usher seemed like he was on track to cutting his own sound into the industry with Good Kisser and SCTGITY. A legend should feel comfortable in not having to settle with trends on their album. I wanted him to elevate himself as an artist instead of just attempting to elevate himself commercially.

    The bitter truth that we have to accept is that Usher and his brand vie for the smash singles by way of following trends. After Good Kisser and SCTGITY “failed”, they decided to follow much more trendy sounds. Crash, while it has shades of the mainstream sound, he made it his own and I believe it fits right at home into his brand and signature sound. So no complaints there. But No Limit? A hard attempt at mainstream appeal and putting away signature Usher for some Migos type flow. Usher always had some songs to lend himself to hip hop style flows, but he’s always sounded like himself. Now adding the vulgarity too is just like “wtf”?… Trends man. Just trends, is all i can say. Every long time Usher fan knows that Ush is way too many cuts above these “Rap ‘nB” young’nz to be emulating their style. Even if he’s better at their style, it’s still taking a step back in his progress and value to meet current trends. The main point I wanted to make is that I wish Usher and his team calued his career as an artist and pushing his lane further into a natural development. Something classic but still pushes the genre in new ways. He has a couple songs that do but the album as a whole doesn’t do this

    Another big grip was this: Usher has some really uninspired sub par lyrics on this album that I can only credit the current pop climate to allow him to do. A bunch of phrasing on this album remind me of the young cats in the game and was ripping straight from their playbook.

    – “i love her like my niggas, my niggas, my niggas”
    – “my mama fuck witchu, my brotha fuck witchu… fuck wit me like i fuck witchu”
    – “new BMW, new tint so dark the cops gotta squint”
    – “lil’ mama we shine just pick a destina-SHINE” he was really reaching with that rhyme lol
    -“i swear my shit could turn into yo shit, we could call it our shit”
    – “you like bitches, i like bitches, we can get bitches to keep a secret”
    – “fuck wit me”
    – all of Downtime was a straight up Drake song
    – “tell me what nigga been wit the same bitch..”

    All of this is just blatant reminders that Usher has prioritized the trend over art. The trend right now in all of “R&B” now days is vulgarity. I think that’s mostly in part since R&B is not the viable genre it was, they have to borrow from hip hop since hip hop has been the new pop and a much more lucrative genre.

    I just would like for Usher to have an album that doesn’t speak to what is being over saturated in the genre. Vulgar uninspired lyrics, synth heavy beats, rap flows over actual vocal technique.

    Lots of younger fans like to throw the argument “Have an open mind and let Usher evolve”. As if old cats are inherently against all change at all times in every circumstance. Trust, I’m open to Usher’s growth as well. I want him to grow in a way that only pushes his legacy forward Just because we don’t agree with this trend doesn’t automatically dismiss us as close minded. Good Kisser was so different and refreshing musically, i loved that. Climax is great. Missing You is great. There are plenty of ways to expand your sound and experiment. But i think “experimenting” with tired sounds, especially with content with such distasteful lyrics and delivery, THAT is something different. Even if you do it better than your peers.

    Bottom line, most times I love anything Usher is singing… Singing! He’s one of the best voices in the R&B game since the turn of the millennium. Ush should have came back showing us just why he’s important to the R&B genre, showing us how this is his craft and taking his sound a step forward. As an Usher stan, I could say comfortably that Hard II Love didn’t do that. Too many attempts to throw away his potential to fulfill a popular sound done by grace C singers (if you wanna call them that). It’s never great to emulate artists that aren’t even in the same league with you, an inferior league to be more specific.

    I hope that after this album he decides to forego the mainstream success and feel comfortable enough to adapt a niche. Focus on quality music that’s genuine to his legacy and brand. He ahs nothing else to prove commercially so…

    • YKIGS September 25, 2016 at 9:46 am - Reply

      Thank you for the very well thought out and unbiased review, even though you’re an Usher fan. We’re Usher fans here too, have been since the beginning. The man is a legend with so many timeless hits. I think that’s why we hold him to such a high standard, and find such disappointment when he is clearly capable of more.

      • DiiJei September 26, 2016 at 4:52 am - Reply

        Couldn’t agree more! Keep up the great work guys, let’s not lose hope on Ush. I guess we’ll have to fall back on catalog and settle for a few songs off the latest project until the next lol. All the best to you

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