Usher is the most successful male R&B artist of the past 20 years – actually, one of the most successful artists period – yet he often feels left out of the conversation when it comes to our generation’s premiere stars.
Much of the narrative about his success now focuses majorly on the juggernaut that was 2004’s Confessions, which sold more than a million records its first week. However, the entertainer had already cemented himself as crossover smash with 2001’s 8701. In fact, I recall being frustrated that Rolling Stone crowned Justin Timberlake “The New King of Pop” in 2003. Clearly that honor should have gone to U. But even with accolades –including Billboard naming him the Top 100 Artist of the 2000s– we’ve been undervaluing Usher for years now.
Some of this is his own fault. It’s no secret that it’s harder for R&B artists now that it’s been in year’s past (unless you’re white), but unlike Beyoncé, Usher tried to keep up with the times. He grabbed a glow stick and joined the EDM kids, resulting in songs like “Oh My God” and “Scream.” Usher also began to collaborate with Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias, which is not wrong in theory but is in its subsequent end result. All of those overly pop-dance singles were cynical attempts to maintain Usher as a radio mainstay.
They were successful in that sense, but they also began to strip Usher of what made him so successful. He stopped being the consistent great album maker. He began to rely more on clichés with only glimmers of forward-leaning R&B such as “Climax.” He essentially didn’t own that he is Usher, thus above that sort of music making. Even if I loathed R&B’s brief but no less painful flirtation with EDM, I understood why many felt compelled to do so. I will never understand why Usher felt such pressure.
Even so, considering his catalog and the millions upon millions it sold and hit after hit it produced, you would think he’d have more capital to quickly recapture past glory.
Especially when you consider he’s beginning to make such good music again. This would include the delightful ode to oral pleasure in “Good Kisser.” I’m not sure I will ever forgive the masses for not making that song a bigger deal.
Now, I understand the division over “She Came To Give It To You” featuring Nicki Minaj. I enjoy it, but it does feel like a retread of that Robin Thicke song I dare not name. Usher got even better with the Mike WiLL Made it produced “Believer” and “Clueless,” which was distributed by way of a Honey Nut Cheerios box.
Nothing really stuck, though, and has subsequently left Usher’s album, UR, in limbo. Last year, Usher told Billboard that he would be “taking his time” with the album, explaining, “The album isn’t scheduled anymore. I’ve basically taken it back. I’m taking my time with it. At the end of the day, all of this is just about having fun. You get in the studio [and] go with how you feel.”
So, should I just add Usher’s name under Frank Ocean and Rihanna on the list of artists who want to torture me with their broken promises-promises of a new album?
I understand wanting to make things right, but considering Usher seemingly found his groove back a year ago (and audiences were just slow), what’s the hold up? Where I stand now, there is a void that needs filling. For those of us who don’t want to hear Chris Brown remake the same two songs over and over again, curious but not totally sold on “alternative R&B” mixed with Michael Jackson high notes, or anyone not chasing the R. Kelly’s 1990s ghost, we’re in need. At his peak, Usher made great contemporary R&B for the masses. People like me need more of that and we need it now. Beyoncé can only do so much.
If nothing else, Usher could just day and rerecord his 1994 debut album, which was better than many remember only he was way too damn young at the time. But come back, Usher. I’ve been waiting.