usher-2015-greatest-RB-billboard-1500 Photo by Paul Hampartsoumian slash REX
Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian via

Expectations can dictate how fans judge music. For Usher, this is a reality that proves to be challenging each time he puts out new material. The trend continues with the release of Hard II Love, his eighth studio album. Fans of Usher and R&B in general revere Confessions — the album that garnered Usher the most commercial success and critical acclaim of his career. The 2004 album is a classic and, as a result, it’s the standard by which all of Usher’s music is judged.

Fans want Usher to recapture the magic of songs like “Caught Up” and “Burn,” so there’s confusion when they hear him put out something like “No Limit.” In principle, the song isn’t much different than singles in his past such as “Yeah!” and “Love in This Club” – songs that are up-tempo and embrace elements of hip-hop. Yet, “No Limit” just doesn’t compare in terms of quality due to lyrics that sound juvenile coming from Usher; the song comes off as more of a forced effort than his past singles.

In addition to matching his past work, Usher has fans that want him to represent traditional R&B because it’s absent in pop culture. He doesn’t fulfill their wishes on most of Hard II Love, and some fans will criticize him for it. Yet, there are nuances to Usher’s choice that should be understood. In an interview with New York radio station WBLS, Usher said that he intentionally adapted sounds that are present in the hip-hop from Atlanta as of late. This embrace of hip-hop reflects a dilemma faced by black R&B singers in mainstream music.

As the music industry has become less and less lucrative, the mainstream scene of most genres has grown homogenous. Record labels have less money to invest into artists, so fewer artists are supported well, and those that are usually fit into a trend that’ll lead to hit songs and lots of streams. Although this change in the industry has made some genres become repetitive, R&B has suffered a heavier blow and largely disappeared from the mainstream. It seems that the genre is not as easy of a sell to listeners across America as the pop and rap songs that dominate airwaves.

With this in mind, big name artists often take cues from Pop or Rap when it comes to their singles. The motivation ranges from strategically adapting to experimenting for the sake of growth. Yet, stepping outside of R&B tends to bring them success and Usher’s work in recent years is a testament to this. The video for “Good Kisser” — a good song that’s distinctly R&B — has just under 40 million views on YouTube. Many artists would love to have that view count, but it pales in comparison to the 129 million views for the audio of “Don’t Mind” – a song dedicated to strippers.

Now, this isn’t an excuse for Usher’s artistic choices. However, he and many of his peers are directly responding to the industry they’re in with the music they put out. With this in mind, his collaborations with the likes of Future and Metro Boomin shouldn’t come as total surprises. The songs actually come together more smoothly than “No Limit.”

Furthermore, Usher bridges the gap between his musical pedigree and today’s trends on a few songs on Hard II Love. On “Need U,” Usher tries out some cadences over an ominous, bass-heavy beat. Yet he balances it with a bridge and background vocals reminiscent of classic R&B records. He continues this mash-up of styles on “Missin U,” on which he switches from a speaker-rattling beat on his verses to a chorus that could have fit in on Off the Wall. He even includes “Tell Me,” an 8-minute-long bedroom anthem that’s true to his roots as a singer.

Hard II Love as a whole isn’t one of his better projects, but it does offer some great songs. Desires for Usher to stick to traditional R&B are valid. His duet with Yuna titled “Crush” shows how great he is at the genre. However, an album from someone with Usher’s track record is always worth a listen. Singles are meant to sell fans an album, but they usually don’t tell fans what an album sounds like from start to finish.

Have you heard Hard II Love? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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