Will Hard II Love reverse Usher’s downward trajectory? After releasing three singles from an album, 2014’s projected UR, that never materialized even after he toured behind it, and then starring in a film, Hands of Stone, that recently bombed, Usher returns with his eighth album. Unlike its predecessor, 2012’s eclectic and introspective Looking 4 Myself, Hard II Love entirely forgoes uptempo dance music. Following up a pattern established by this summer’s singles “Crash,” a tortured ballad; and “No Limit” – a trap music tribute to the ‘90s gangsta-rap label of the same name – the set alternates between cloudy slow jams and murkier hip-hop.
As Looking’s chart-topper “Climax” spectacularly proved, Usher aces the former. Like the pointedly ambivalent psyches of Drake and the Weeknd, whose shadowy influences loom all over them, Hard II Love’s desolate ballads are compellingly disharmonious, and their conflicts engage Usher’s acting skills. He brings the drama to not only the aforementioned “Crash,” so far an unjustified flop at radio, but also stormy slowies like album opener “Need U,” which features melodic twists that suggest Michael Jackson, always a suitable touchstone for this kindred entertainer. The guitar-driven title track and the eight-and-a-half-minute epic of sexual healing “Tell Me” rank among Usher’s amorous best, while “Champions” – a Latin soul duet with Hands of Stone co-star Rubén Blades that’s overseen by R&B savant Raphael Saadiq – ends the album on a much-needed uplifting note.
The problem lies when Usher plays the thug. F-bombs, n-bombs, and similarly unnecessary confessions like, “All I think about is bitches” from “Mind of a Man” sound strained coming from this consummate showman: Chris Brown he is thankfully not. And it doesn’t help that the songs in which the superstar stoops are mighty thin: The chorus of “Bump” is little more than the crooner repeating the title 30 mind-scrambling times on one single note. Even “FWM” – yep, that stands for “F— with Me” – pales compared to previous Pharrell collaborations like Looking’s “Twisted.” Instead of coming across convincingly tough, Hard II Love on these songs merely lives up to its title.
Adele producer Paul Epworth oversees a darkly satisfying introductory cut that integrates futuristic electronics and old-school compositional depth.
Whereas much of Hard is decidedly earthy, this epic erotic ballad soars.
Usher’s recent acting bid as boxer Sugar Ray Leonard in Hands of Stone generates an anthem that brings the Ricky Martin flavor with inspirational results.