Usher, ‘Hard II Love’ | Album Review
He may be 38 years old, but Usher continues to showcase an incredible amount of swag on his eighth studio album, ‘Hard II Love.’
Usher Raymond IV made the biggest statement of his career in 2004. That’s when Confessions blessed the music industry with one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Since then, he’s experienced plenty of success commercially and critically, but nothing has eclipsed Confessions. After a four-year hiatus and multiple singles, Usher returns with his long-awaited eighth studio album, Hard II Love. Hard II Love is imperfect but has plenty of moments that should satisfy life-long fans of the R&B heartthrob.
“Need U” initiates Hard II Love nebulously – there’s a lack of stability. Moody and unsettling, the record settles in more upon the second verse but lacks catchiness. Vocally, Usher sounds respectable. Ultimately, “Need U” feels a bit odd as an opener, but plays better the second time.
“Missin U” provides the necessary atonement. Exceptionally well produced, “Missin U” seamlessly blends urban contemporary cues with retro-soul. Perhaps the music theory won’t captivate everyone, the harmonic progression is clever, much more so than most modern songs. Vocally, Usher shines.
“No Limit” featuring Young Thug keeps the momentum (and swag) rolling without a hitch. The record is nothing new, but a sound update on the sound that made Usher a superstar. Young Thug doesn’t electrify on his guest verse per se, but provides a contrast – a change of pace. “No Limit” covers the bases: hip-hop, pop, and R&B.
“Bump” is chocked full of gimmickry, from Lil Jon’s signature shouted vocals, to the lyrical repetition (“bump” is iterated at least 26 times). Despite the “bag of tricks,” it’s an enjoyable record, particularly when the focus is Usher’s voice. Follow up “Let Me” is quite profane. Usher has never been this profane, hence, assimilating to the current culture of unapologetic explicitness. That aside, he’s “cool” as ever, pop-rap-singing over a backdrop that’s slick AF.
“You are the realest b*tch out here, we all admit that you the sh*t / New BMW, new tint so dark the cops gotta squint.”
Like the tracks preceding it, “Downtime” is perfectly tailored in regards to production. Usher remains cocky, confident, and locked in, spitting game and trash-talk. It’s no classic but is sufficient ear candy from “post-peak” Usher in 2016.
“Crash” didn’t create much buzz upon its arrival. Molded in the contemporary style, “Crash” isn’t far-fetched from Usher’s work on Looking 4 Myself. In the context of Hard II Love, it’s among the crème de la crème. Not game changing, the falsetto shines and the backdrop is synth heaven.
On “Make U a Believer,” Usher quickly sifts through game-laden lyrics sung in rhythmic, pop-rap approach. Not as fresh as Confessions era Usher, he still proves he can pull it off. As slick as it is, it feels like dessert – its sweetness eventually fades from the palate.
On interlude “Mind of a Man,” Usher doesn’t aspire to be transcendent: “All I think about is b*tches.” It foreshadows the aggressive, low-aiming “FWM,” arguably the artist’s easiest song of his career. Easy is done well thanks to production work by Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II. Still, at 38, Usher could aim bigger without being boring.
“Rivals” is made for radio. Guest Future has a minimal role, so it’s not saturated in his autotune babble. Usher’s vocals sound terrific – clear, more youthful than his 38 years, and exceptional. He delivers quick-paced, pop-rap-like vocals on the verse, continuing to showcase his “swag.” It isn’t the deepest cut, but “Rivals” is catchy and respectable through and through.
Ballad “Tell Me” features superb production work and does something too many tracks fail to do – showcase Usher’s beautiful instrument in all its glory. It’s not that ‘the voice’ doesn’t shine through on Hard II Love, but “Tell Me” intentionally focuses on it more than many of the club records. It’s not the best song ever written, but among the best of the album. The bridge, in particular, is epic:
“I want to hold you till I can’t feel again / until your soul lets me in”
Title track “Hard II Love” is surprising. Something of a pop/rock infused R&B ballad, once more, Usher is able to showcase the ripeness of his instrument. “Stronger” is uplifting. While it has a dash of predictability, captivating production differentiates it from similar empowering anthems. “Champions” (with Rubén Blades) concludes Hard II Love. “Champions” is from the motion picture Hands of Stone.
All in all, Hard II Love is an enjoyable effort. It isn’t nearly as elite as Confessions, but on par with Usher’s solid, if flawed recent releases. Arguably, Hard II Love has “the leg up” on Raymond v. Raymond (2010), while it lacks the hits of Looking 4 Myself (2012). Nitpicking aside, Hard II Love is quite respectable for an R&B album in 2016. They come few and far between.
Gems: “Missin U,” “No Limit,” “Crash,” “Rivals” & “Tell Me”