“I fucked up. I’m man enough to admit it.” So begins Hard II Love, the eighth album by Usher. The R&B superstar has minted platinum by laying out his sins in the past – his 2004 album Confessions was one of the record business’s last releases to pass the 10-million-shifted mark. More recently, though, his output has been defined by a willingness to seek out musical inspiration from cutting-edge artists and more obscure sonic impulses: 2012’s critic-beloved “Climax” placed his falsetto against a skeletal drum machine; 2014’s “Good Kisser” allowed him to get frisky over a barely there funk tableau. That adventurousness defines Hard II Love, which manages to stretch the boundaries of R&B while winding toward the brooding atmospherics that have enveloped much of pop over the past 12 months.
According to a Q&A Usher did before the album arrived on Tidal Monday night, Hard II Love is made for “men who don’t think love is cool to do.” It’s a dense, lengthy album with dense layers and unexpected twists, with lyrics that are so plainspoken that at times they seem tossed-off (surely someone on his team could have intervened before he rhymed “phone calls” with “phones off” on the whirling “Make U a Believer”). The album’s persistent darkness, in keeping with current radio trends, overtakes even uptempo tracks like the Pharrell-produced tease “FWM.” But Usher – like any soul star worth his collection of Al Green albums – also knows that low-lit rooms are where a lot of the best action happens. “Let Me” spins off a stretched-out sample from Ready for the World’s 1985 slow jam “Love You Down,” and updates the idea of the uxorious tribute with spinning drum fills and Usher taking pride in his mate’s ability to command equal pay (!). “Tell Me” is the album’s sprawling, sensual centerpiece, an eight-minute-plus odyssey where Usher splits the difference between the sparseness of “Climax” and the slow-jam splendor of Confessions-era offerings like “Burn,” with his falsetto guiding the romp.
Hard II Love also has a decidedly Atlanta-centric bent; the spaced-out come-on “No Limit” features a fanciful verse from Young Thug, while the cavernous love song “Bump,” which was produced by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, balances itself on a sample of crunk grandmaster Lil Jon barking out his signature “what.” The enigmatic MC Future, meanwhile, duets with Usher on “Rivals,” a muscular, downtempo track in which Usher tries to iron out differences with a resistant woman.
The album’s two closing tracks represent an epilogue of sorts – their cinematic production values and triumph-tinged lyrics show that there are other things in life besides the battle of the sexes, and that even insurmountable tangles with the self can be won. “Stronger,” in which Usher deals with the grief that hit him after the 2012 death of his stepson Kile Glover, uses cloud-borne piano riffs and a gospel choir to brightly underline its message of resilience. The Rúben Blades–assisted “Champions,” which doubles as the theme to the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone, feels like a 21st-century update of Babyface’s “Change the World”; Usher and Blades trade off victory-minded platitudes in English and Spanish over gently strummed guitars, and the song’s message – that America and other countries can thrive simultaneously, even building off each others’ success – comes off more political in 2016 than it probably could have been foreseen, particularly for a closing-credits offering.
Usher says that it took about three years to release Hard II Love, and in that time the sound of pop music has changed dramatically. He’s paid just enough attention to pop’s new ideas to come out with an album that looks forward while remaining true to what’s made him one of R&B’s most reliable stars.