When it comes to USHER’s three-decade career it’s maybe best to view it in two phases: the Imperial phase, which covers his breakthrough ‘My Way’ in 1997, 2001 hit parade ‘8701’ and career masterstroke ‘Confessions’; and the post-2005 juncture which saw the R&B titan try to reclaim the glory with trend-driven forays into EDM, occasionally cutting through the filler with brooding ambient-R&B symphonies like ‘Climax’.
Usher’s ninth studio album, ‘COMING HOME’, arrives eight years after his last solo effort ‘Hard II Love’; timed to coincide with his Apple Music Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show on Sunday. It comes at a time when we’re debating when our favourite musicians from the oughts transition into being legacy acts, and whether they can thrive in a future-shock streaming era which has stratified, and homogenised, the listening marketplace. Sure, we’re in the era of quaint revivalism; that clock app can send a song from a long-gone eon soaring up the charts. But nostalgia and deference to what worked in the past can only get you so far. So, do you adapt to survive, make innovation and found sound your calling card a la Beyoncé? Or traverse the past and present with the kind of every-man appeal that made you a household name in the first place?
‘COMING HOME’ does more of the latter across its lengthy twenty-track sprawl. To his credit, Usher knows what works for him. His real-time restoration as the preeminent showman is matched by pared-back mid-tempo grooves, tailor-made for his future live show serenades; his pedigree in that department affirmed by the scores of testimonials from fans who’ve had a private audience with Usher on his My Way: The Las Vegas Residency, and his sold-out European residency in Paris.
‘COMING GOME’ is mostly balladic in taste and form, rarely defined by despondency or nihilism, padded instead with syrupy love notes, fluffed-up innuendo, and innocuous one-liners. The art of romance and courtship is its lifeforce and Usher is the velvety mouthpiece. The title track and opening number with its post-disco shimmer sets the tone for what prevails in ritualistic fashion across much of the album. Usher may be boo’d up in real life but ‘COMING HOME’ is his dream-like fantasia where everything goes and anything is permissible. He leans into his chief role as a romancer, navigating the lexicon and lurid details of modern dating, sign compatibility and love languages; the minimalist ‘Bop’ with its ripped-from-the-internet idioms works as both a neat call back, and progression, for an artist who has made a career from laying bare his feelings. Usher lays bare his fallacies as well: ‘Ruin’, a team-up with Nigerian singer Pheelz, is post-relationship hankering packaged as moody afro-fusion.
The best moments on ‘COMING HOME’ come when Usher lets rip vocally. It’s on songs like widescreen piano ballad ‘Risk It All’ with H.E.R., where you hear in microscale how devoted Usher is to the discipline of cultivating his most prized instrument. ‘Risk It All’ is the kind of epic and eternal love-stained melodrama that is returning to replace the stoic strain of programmed RnB. Usher’s trained voice works wonders when it’s airy, up close and bright, or when he slips and slides between rap staccato and multi-tracked harmony lines on latter half woozy highlight ‘Margiela’.
There are misfires: ‘A-Town Girl’ is a sickly sweet trap makeover of Billy Joel’s cloying original; ‘Keep On Dancin’s’ synthpop-lite styling arrives a few years too late, and more than a handful of cuts are distillations of the same song. There’s narrative cohesion, yes, but a leaner structure, and more daring in construction would have been welcomed. Still, ‘COMING HOME’, in the context of a seasoned entertainer experiencing a career Renaissance, gives adoring fans a sprinkling of every musical touchstone in the R&B canon. ‘COMING HOME’ competently portrays love as part Afrodisiac, part pulse-racing chase, part languorous and lived-in sensation. ‘COMING HOME’ is also tangential to the live spectacle, and that’s okay.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain