Looking 4 Myself became the fourth consecutive Usher album to top the Billboard 200 chart. Its follow-up, Hard II Love, arrived four years later -- by a matter of weeks, the singer's longest between-albums period to that point. The space was filled with several non-album singles, including the ribald Pop & Oak collaboration "Good Kisser" and meet-ups with Nicki Minaj and Juicy J, the latter of which, "I Don't Mind," went multi-platinum.
"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.
Like many child stars, Usher has struggled with his transition to adulthood. He was too old to be lurking like somebody’s creepy uncle in the 2010 video for “Lil Freak,” and too young to be belting like a 55-year-old who’s just bagged his first under-30 girlfriend in the song “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home).” But on 2014’s “Good Kisser,” a louche wink of a song, he figured out how to relax into exactly what he was: a dude in his mid-thirties with the abs of Michelangelo’s David, the dance moves of MJ, and the money of an artist who released the sixth best-selling album of the 2000s. He sounded breezy and at ease, finally confident enough to date women his age.
Usher’s fascination with guilt knows no bounds. From his earliest days as a teen idol with adult-worthy dance moves, hits like “You Make Me Wanna” (1997) and “U Remind Me” (2001) established a strict thematic formula: regret, remembrance, and of course, the sexual tension that ties it all together. It’s no coincidence that Usher’s best-selling album, the 2004 opus Confessions, dealt almost exclusively with this scandalous content.
No one converts an apology into a come-on more suavely than Usher, who releases his eighth solo studio album, “Hard II Love,” this week. It’s a stratagem he perfected as far back as 2004 with “Confessions,” which became his best-selling album. Some sincere contrition, a request for mercy, an appeal to a longtime bond, a reminder of physical chemistry and voilá — he’s sweet-talked his way to another chance.
Four years ago, it felt like Usher Raymond IV had broken new ground. On “Climax,” his lovelorn pathos was married to Diplo’s frostbitten production, making for a revelatory experiment: a mainstream R&B institution looking ahead to the future, forgoing expectations for something fresh. But it turned out to be a brief peak—his subsequent album, the confounding Looking 4 Myself, failed to tie its international influences together into a cohesive effort.