While everyone is giving praise to Beyoncé for laying her alleged marital woes bare on Lemonade, stars putting their relationship problems on blast via wax isn’t anything new. Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear is the greatest diss album and alimony payment ever. Of course, we don’t have to go back quite that far for examples. Usher Raymond did the same on his multi-platinum 2003 album, Confessions. Since then, each of his albums has reflected where the star is both in love and in his career. On Hard II Love, we find Usher coming to terms with being a grown ass man who may or may not be ready for love. He’s realized that growing up doesn’t mean you become any more perfect. You just have more times to screw up. In addition to being real about himself, Usher is also struggling with relevance, trying to find his place in a world with Bryson Tillers and Chris Browns.
Originally titled Flawed, the project has had its share of missteps and false starts. "Good Kisser" was one of the best R&B singles of 2014, but, unfortunately, good music doesn’t always translate into great sales. Other singles, "She Came to Give It To You," "I Don’t Mind" and "Chains," failed to make waves. It was beginning to look like Flawed was going to live up to its title and not in a good way. Undeterred, Usher went back to the drawing board, scrapping the good intentions of his failed singles and working with a few new people in the game, including PJ, Ty Dolla $ign, Metro Boomin', PartyNextDoor and his “Chains”-collaborator, Bibi Bourelly. Noticeably absent are frequent collaborators Jermaine Dupri, Bryan-Michael Cox, Rico Love and Mr. Happy himself, Pharrell Williams.
The final result is an album that reaps his past experiences in love as fertile material for songs about regret, redemption, shame and, of course, love making. Usher has messed up and is trying to get back in the good graces of the woman in his life through begging, pleading, a little manipulation and the promise of great sex. In short, Usher is trying to find redemption in seduction.
Many of the tracks find Usher fusing his soul sensibilities with a modern hip hop edge. It feels natural for a star who emerged in 1994 and a former prodigy of Puff Daddy. However, Usher does more than just sing over a couple of trap beats like the aforementioned Tiller. He combines various elements of each genre to create engaging compositions. This is most apparent on the single "Missing U," which combines Michael Jackson-esque runs, ATL rap voiceovers and a shifting soundbed to create a great mid-tempo groove. A similar aesthetic is used for the baby-making jam “Bump” and “Let Me,” a seductive flip of the Ready For The World's Quiet Storm staple "Love You Down." Even when Usher employs a rap cadence or uses language such as “You’re a real b***h,” it’s forgivable because he’s crafted such an undeniable groove that it doesn’t matter.
This strategy works well when Usher acts like a stranger in a strange land, not completely surrendering himself to whatever is popular on the radio, but finding his place in the cacophony of sounds. He’s at his worst when he goes native, pushing his audience's suspension of disbelief a little too far. “Downtime” is an okay ballad, but sounds like it would be better placed on a Drake album. Even the standout Metro Boomin'-produced “Make U A Believer” tries a little too hard to make Usher sound big, bad and sexy. "Rivals" has all the elements of a good song, but Future’s usual charisma is reduced to “Jafaican” ad-libs while Usher mumbles along. Finally, there’s the folk-ish, Cold Play-ish, Frank Ocean-ish title track, that, while filled with touching lyrics, the more Usher strains against the acoustic production, the more we wish he’d just stop.
When Usher isn’t adding an old school hip hop ad-lib or imitating the new kids on the block, he reminds us he’s still a master at creating a straight up ballad. This is readily apparent on the sorrowful but beautiful second single, "Crash," where Usher attempts to reconcile his feelings with a former flame. “Stronger,” a pop ballad that finds the artist returning to his “revolutionary pop” sound, has all the best elements of that era on display.
Hard II Love is a good album, but not a great one. The vision for the project, an album about a man’s struggles with love and commitment, is grand, but ultimately falls a little flat in the execution. There is a darkness to this album that, while fun and edgy, can also be off-putting. He’s always been contemplative and naval gazing, but now he’s in the depths of despair looking for a love that will pull him out of his player ways before he becomes the old man in the club. It’s the same sad love song, and Usher is wracking his brain like crazy to get over himself. Usher is at his best when he puts on his showman charm. That charm is all but lost on this project. Finally, besides "No Limit," this album really doesn’t really have any uptempo dance numbers, which, isn’t a prerequisite, but Usher’s party tracks have always helped balance his projects, whether it be Confessions or Raymond vs. Raymond.
With that said, Hard II Love isn’t hard to like. Repeat listens reveal the skillful craftsmanship put into the project. The worst songs on the album are still much better than much of what passes for R&B and pop music these days.