This summer, I went to an E-40 and Bone Thugz-n-Harmony concert. Between sets, one of the MC’s was working the crowd, joking around and playing radio hits to get people moving. Then, he made the off-hand comment, “how many people in their 30’s do we have in here?” and played some old Usher. The crowd exploded and began writhing together. 30-year old women started grinding their bedazzled True Religions against their boyfriend’s (probably husbands at this point, huh?) sagged pants. I puked in my mouth a little bit. All of this is to say that Usher’s new album is a lot like suppressing the urge to baby vomit in your mouth when you see a 30-year old’s thong ride up a little above their waist line. “A” is tacky in the way Usher so clearly wants to be young again, taking on the trap-R&B mantle for this short project. But still, there’s a beauty to the way this album embraces its kitsch: songs about teenage love and nights spent in the club should be cheesy, but the simple happiness in Usher’s voice elevates the record a little bit. The collection of songs are small evidence that kids aren’t the only one’s having fun or the only one’s wanting to dance.
This does not mean that the album is good, however. Feel free to skip to track three for the song you’re going to play ironically during a one night stand. On the whole, it’s pretty underwhelming.You’re much better off listening to older Usher tapes or most anything else Zaytoven has touched this year if you want a similar vibe. Songs like “Peace Sign” and the Future assisted “Stay At Home” work to explain why this project was poorly conceived to begin with. Usher’s shifty and melodic flow is ill-at home in Zaytoven’s expansive beats; they fight for space while the center balance of the song disintegrates. While Usher may have been one of Atlanta’s first vocalists, there’s been nearly twenty years of change since he exploded onto the scene. Where new Atlantans, like Gunna and Future who are both featured on the album, have learned to alter their delivery to fit with the feel of a trap beat, Usher’s vocal performance specifically demands the listeners attention, the way it shimmies and wriggles across octaves. Often times this comes at the expense of the groove of the song.
Admittedly, Usher has slowly been altering his sound to match his hometown over the last couple of years. Trap hi-hats have crept their way into his recent singles, his last album had features from Young Thug and Future. Still, Zaytoven was not the most obvious collaborator for this album. There are good amount of songs that sound like Usher twitter DM’d Zay for some beats. But there are also some songs where the two come together and it sounds like 1) Usher never left 2004 and 2) the prior point is a good thing. This is most obvious on “You Decide,” a mournful R&B jam, with appropriately lush keys to match Usher’s moody performance. Who cares that this song displays the emotional sophistication of an 18-year old Usher, that’s kind of the point. I can’t imagine you wanted to seriously reevaluate your life after listening to an Usher song anyway. That Usher can still pull off the lovelorn, playboy aesthetic is truly remarkable considering he should be concerned about the maturation of his 401K, but it works almost primarily due to the fact that the song is a perfect call-up to an earlier era of his own discography. Listening to “You Decide” is a strange second-hand nostalgia, partially because I only ever listened to Usher during the Kids Choice Awards prior to 2 years ago, but mostly because it feels as if I’m being given a tour of Usher’s past by the artist himself. This doesn’t take away from the song, an especially needed reprieve from the generic sound of much of the album.
The best song, however, is “Ata,” primarily because it helps me conclude the point I’ve been making. There is no way anyone could listen to this album and call this the best song (objectively, that honor would probably go to “Say What U Want,” which sees Zaytoven eschew his typical production style to something that fits Usher), but it is absolutely the most fun song on the album. Yes, half the chorus is Usher singing ‘lit’, and he might as well have said, “How do you do, fellow kids?” Steve Buscemi meme, but also, so what? It’s stupid and bouncy, with an appropriate amount of darkness for a night of clubbing. Being forty doesn’t stop you from liking big butts or wanting to dance in the club with your friends. The end of the track disintegrates, replacing the studio quality audio with the hyphy shouts of Usher and Zaytoven listening to the track in the studio, turning up with their buddies. And that small moment is the emotional heart of the whole record, a couple of older dudes smiling and dancing to the escapism of their own music.
Maybe this album is a mid-life crisis on wax, but since when is that a sin? You really thought Usher would stop singing about women when he turned forty? His music may be our only hope to restore the dwindling panda population.. It probably says more about me that I giggle at Usher’s loverboy crooning that it does about him that he’s still obsessed over women who don’t call him back. That Usher still waits at the phone is a quiet beauty. The youth in his crooning is there only in spirit now, but it’s there. It hints at how love and wanting don’t leave us, that they sit in your heart when the seasons change and when time continues its march, this time to a trap beat.