R & B
Usher Andrew Chan

A comeback solo album by the consummate performer.

Coming Home, by Usher, Mega

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Of the many qualities that have contributed to Usher’s long-lived pop stardom, perhaps the most distinctive is his exquisitely calibrated sense of scale. Like very few modern entertainers, he has a gift for adjusting his delivery to the size of any venue and drawing spectators into sensual contact with his artistry. Before his powerfully athletic performance last weekend at the Super Bowl—the kind of high-profile song-and-dance marathon that he seems to have been training for his entire life—he spent two years on the comeback trail repeatedly eliciting swoons with the more intimate sides of his showmanship. Viral footage from his recent residency in Las Vegas captured him serenading celebrities in the audience, serving up erotic delight with little more than his satiny voice and bedroom eyes. And in a widely acclaimed 2022 appearance on NPR’s YouTube concert series Tiny Desk, he ran through highlights of his repertoire in a low-key setting that pushed the subtleties of his musical intelligence to the fore. The casual minimalism of his body language complemented his breezy vocal approach, and he brought it all off with a charisma that neither smothered the viewer nor oversold itself.

It’s hard to think of another contemporary pop artist who so consistently demonstrates that the impulse to people-please can coexist with supreme self-possession. But perhaps Usher, like other extraordinary live performers, has gotten so used to seducing his fans in public spaces that he’s come to regard the cloistered art of making records as a bit of a chore. His blithe mastery onstage becomes mere, dutiful competence on Coming Home, which, despite being his first solo album in eight years, seems to have been rush-released as a Super Bowl–timed cash-grab. There’s certainly an abundance of material here—twenty tracks’ worth—some of it executed with unimpeachable professionalism. Unfortunately, from one song’s cringe-worthy interpolation of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” to another’s perfunctory shout-outs to deceased icons like Tupac and Aaliyah, the cumulative impression is that of a poorly ventilated room in which the same air has been circulating for decades.

There is some pleasure to be found in measuring how closely the singer can approximate his past glories. Similar to many of his greatest hits, “Good Good” (featuring verses from R & B singer-songwriter Summer Walker and rapper 21 Savage) reflects on the complications of a highly specific romantic situation. But where a younger Usher ruminated on agonizing entanglements—in 1997’s “You Make Me Wanna . . .,” our hero realizes he has fallen in love with the best friend who set him up with his current mate; in 2004’s “Confessions Part II,” he charts the twists and turns of an affair that has unexpectedly led to pregnancy—“Good Good” takes the awkwardness of its premise in stride. In a tone both familial and flirtatious, the song describes a breakup that has given way to a respectfully boundaried friendship. Considering how persuasively the records of Usher’s early adulthood envisioned the straight-male libido as an existential burden, it makes sense that he would now embody the role of recovered fuckboy as if it were a hard-won reprieve.

“Good Good” nods to the brand of hip-hop soul that dominated the early aughts, when Usher was at his peak. Since then, R & B has floundered on the charts while its sonic ingredients have been melted down and absorbed into the mainstream. In the wake of the genre’s commercial decline, some of its stars have flocked to electronic dance music, a realm more heavily associated with white audiences and generally inhospitable to the passionate vocals that have long been a trademark of Black pop (especially the crooner tradition that Usher has inherited from forebears such as Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, and Boyz II Men). For a while, Usher seemed to be one of those defectors, and his most well-known rendezvous with EDM—the gleefully moronic 2010 chart-topper “OMG”—dinged his credibility with parts of his core audience.

Loyal fans will have noticed that his last two records managed to fuse the icy atmospherics of electronic music with his own aesthetic sensibility. The best example of this alchemy on Coming Home is “Kissing Strangers,” a collaboration with Busbee and Ryan Daly, producers with no notable track record in R & B. Over a burbling synthetic soundscape, Usher launches into the song’s first lines—“Is it messed up that I hoped you’d be here / only so I could act like I don’t care?”—in a listless cadence that sets up the manically paced chorus to register as a devastating jolt. His voice is warm and nakedly human until the climactic cheer—“I’m missing you!”—renders it an abstract, echoey blur. The slight corniness of that gimmick aside, this is one of the few tracks that transmits any sense of urgency, and it’s a reminder of Usher’s ability to convey multilayered emotions in any context, even in an idiom that feels at odds with his gospel-influenced virtuosity.

The gorgeously sung “Ruin,” which pairs Usher with Nigerian artist Pheelz, offers another instance of genre experimentation through its gentle Afrobeat flourishes. But for the most part, Coming Home signals a return to the kind of mass-market R & B that has long been rumored dead. Sadly, Usher locates few signs of life. “On the Side” finds him reconnecting with Jermaine Dupri, Bryan-Michael Cox, and Johntá Austin—urban-music veterans responsible for some of the best material of his heyday—but the results play like a flavorless parody of their signature ballads. On “Cold Blooded,” the singer links up with two other luminaries from the same era, Pharrell Williams and The-Dream, but the ponderous, uninviting beat gives him neither a feeling nor a pulse to latch onto.

In some ways, Usher is still an old-school, Beyoncé-level perfectionist at heart. And yet, in light of the industry politics that have transformed American pop over the past two decades, who can blame him for phoning this album in? The era of Spotify, TikTok, and rapacious media conglomerates has dramatically diminished the value of recorded music, removing the incentive for top-tier legacy artists to labor over new material and pushing their attention toward tours and residencies, which are grueling but much more lucrative. Usher’s phenomenal live act has generated enough goodwill that Coming Home’s mediocrity won’t damage his reputation. Still, as the cascade of bangers in his Super Bowl medley showed, most good pop records revolve around a meticulously crafted hook—something that this album glaringly lacks, and that no amount of star power or stage presence can will into existence.

Andrew Chan is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Why Mariah Carey Matters, published by University of Texas Press.

A comeback solo album by the consummate performer.
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