Over the summer, I saw Diana Ross in concert at the Hollywood Bowl. When she got to her 1980 single “Upside Down,” there was a surprise in store — she spotted Usher in the audience and asked him to join her onstage. You don’t ignore the Supreme of Disco and R&B, and so Usher obliged. He danced and sang to “Upside Down” with her, sending the crowd into an uproar. How could you not, with two icons on stage?
In 1991, at the age of 13, Usher competed on Star Search, as so many of our greatest pop stars have — from Aaliyah and Beyoncé to Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys. He was noticed by an A&R rep from LaFace Records, who put him in front of L.A. Reid, who signed him on the spot. After a debut on the Poetic Justice soundtrack, his first album bowed in 1994. Usher, while good, didn’t quite kick off Usher’s career of dominating the charts. The album that did that would be 1997’s My Way, whose lead single, “You Make Me Wanna …” jumped to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and whose second single, “Nice & Slow,” became Usher’s first No. 1.
Usher has always had the soul of R&B infused in him. Speaking about his hit album 8701 with MTV News in 2001, he said, “Lyrically, 8701 is my soul. ... I was inspired by love and heartache. I listen to a lot of Donny Hathaway’s, Stevie Wonder’s, Marvin Gaye’s, and Michael Jackson’s earlier records, those Motown greats. There’s a little bit of all of that in the album. I really appreciate what music was back then, as well as in the early ’90s when you had artists like Troop and Jodeci, and Michael Jackson was in his prime.”
My understanding of sexuality as a black male often came from the media I consumed, and there was nothing more beautiful in the early 2000s than the unapologetically black Usher singing about love, relationships, and heartaches. On days when I could be ridiculed for the supposed femininity that came with listening to Aaliyah, hearing Usher croon “Damn, I loved you, you were my girl” and “You don’t have to call, it’s OK, girl / ’Cause I’m gonna be all right tonight” on my personal favorite, “U Don’t Have to Call,” helped reaffirm the romantic sensitivity that it was possible for a man to possess.
Twenty-five years after that Star Search performance, Usher is releasing his eighth studio album, Hard II Love. The album goes on sale today, but it’s been streaming exclusively for Tidal listeners for a week. On the eve of that Tidal release, the service hosted an exclusive listening session in Downtown Los Angeles at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, hosted by rapper Big Boi, who interviewed Usher about each of the tracks on his new album.
So calming is the mere presence of Usher that the chaos of the event melted away the moment he entered. The crowd was packed into the theater’s lobby for nearly an hour and a half before being let inside to take seats. But Usher walking out on stage to the sound of adoring fans screaming his name was enough to wash away any lingering annoyance.
Before discussing his new music, he addressed the elephant in the room: the album cover, which drew mixed reactions when it debuted. To this, Usher simply said, “The art is left to interpretation. We can become calloused by the experiences we go through.” Designed by artist Daniel Arsham, the cover is part of a sculpture of Usher’s body that involved him being covered with materials for three hours without the ability to see or hear. The end result, though it looks very little like Usher, is meant to signify how we’re often “hardened” by love, and some of the scars stay with us.
That’s what R&B music is all about to Usher — and Hard II Love is about embracing it. “Maybe I forgot about R&B music and the importance of it,” he said, referencing albums like 2012’s Looking 4 Myself, with the EDM-tinged single “Scream” and the straight hip-hop “Lemme See.” While he’s spent the past few years “experimenting” with music, he told us, now he’s ready to release a classic R&B album again. There’s one difference, though: Where once he was influenced by the Marvin, Michael, and Stevie albums he mentioned during the promotion of 8701, Usher in 2016 is determined to make his own “quiet storm.” Why put on old records to make love to when you can put on a brand-new Usher record?
Usher meets his goals and then some on Hard II Love, with sexy bangers like “Bump,” “Tell Me,” and “Make U a Believer” (“When I’m with you, I don’t take any phone calls”). You’ll be reminded of the Usher who wanted to take things nice and slow, the guy you wanted to let it burn with. Every aspect of the album focuses on sexuality and on the roles played by a man in a mature relationship. Speaking of the 2012 death of his stepson, Usher said, “Whenever you bury a child, it makes you question what’s going on in the world.” The tragic accident, he said, made him refocus on what it means to be a man, particularly a black man.
That was the indirect inspiration for “Chains,” a recent song that didn’t make the album but which addresses police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The same emotional reckoning is also behind the track “Stronger,” which opens with, “Been through hell, now I’m hell-proof / Pouring cups of whiskey to get through it / Oh, sweet child of mine, gone way too soon / Lost myself and lost my faith too.” By expressing his emotions through R&B music — the one place that has traditionally allowed black men to topple the stony exterior of performative masculinity — Usher has been able to make himself “stronger than ever.” In the visuals for the new song “Crash,” Usher sheds a tear. Rewatching the video in front of the crowd at the theater, he revealed, “Those were real tears.” I believe him.