This past week, Usher Raymond IV turned 40 years old, which, while relatively still young by most people’s standards, is positively ancient in pop star years. His career has been long and fruitful, with multiple crossover hits and near-legend status in the R&B community. His vocal talents are undeniable, and his dance skills are still second-to-none—his former protégé Justin Bieber doesn’t even come close, nor do any other current male singers, for that matter. While his star may not shine as brightly as it did in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Usher is one of those rare Top 40 artists that could basically release whatever music he chooses at any point, and he would have the chops, fanbase, and integrity to pull it off.
Which is what makes “A”, his surprise album produced by fellow Atlanta artist Zaytoven, so jarring and downright weird. Usher and Zaytoven have collaborated before, notably on 2009’s Raymond Vs. Raymond – an album that earned Zaytoven a Grammy – and the producer has had a hand in multiple Southern rap success stories, from Migos to Gucci Mane to Future. So, by all measures, this album should be a slam dunk, the story of a lauded producer fresh off the top of the charts breathing new life into an old favorite. However, mere seconds into “A”, it becomes abundantly apparent that the exact opposite is occurring: desperately grasping at the sound of the zeitgeist, Usher skids through eight tracks of some of 2018’s most uninspiring R&B, full of clunky ATL rap clichés and mind-numbingly repetitive trap beats. It’s undoubtedly his “How do you do, fellow kids?” moment, and, frankly, it’s at times hard to listen to.
“A”’s problems begin in earnest right from the start. The record opens with “Stay At Home,” a mid-tempo trap number featuring guest verses from Future, who is typically a surefire way to ensure that a track be at the very least moderately enjoyable. Here, Usher’s less-than-stellar lyrics come at you fast, and there’s nowhere to hide: “I’ll kill a nigga like cancer/Put on more rings than Cassius,” he sings over lightly twinkling synths and a minimal triple beat (which, by the way, underlays almost every track on the album). “Safe At Home” is a typical jealousy ballad, with Usher urging his woman to remain faithful while he lives the lavish lifestyle of an internationally famous star. “You got a rock/Start keeping your ass at home,” is his listless directive, and it sounds just as bad on the track as it reads in black and white. It’s ham-fisted at best, straight-up misogynist at worst, at the song itself isn’t nearly good enough to warrant looking the other way. Future does what he can, but there’s not a lot to salvage.
Mercifully, “Stay At Home” is definitely the record’s nadir—while the following seven tracks fail to live up to the highs of Usher’s discography, they at least avoid the criminal tepidity of the album’s opener. Ironically, Usher’s previous LP, 2016’s reasonably successful Hard II Love, already touched upon the marriage of old and new urban music, with traditional contemporary R&B instrumentation melding with more futuristic production elements. And the best songs of Usher’s career, like the modern classic “Yeah!” and even the funhouse melody of 2008’s “Love in This Club,” use structural repetition, slightly hokey wordplay and ’80s-inspired synths to brilliant, entertaining effect. “A”, however, completely scraps these musical strengths for something that sounds so ill-conceived and slapdash, it’s as if Zaytoven just swept up whatever was left on the cutting room floor from his last few projects. Neither man is untalented, but their union here provides nothing of note. “Birthday,” a pop track that goes for a catchy, quotable chorus, sounds like something Migos would have nixed before the idea ever left their group chat. There are some glimmers of what could have been, for example the flute-like keys on “You Decide,” which hark back to the early, early days of “U Remind Me,” another Usher classic. On “You Decide,” Usher’s voice effortlessly moves from lush deep tones to a fluttering falsetto, slipping into the song’s groove while using its power to tie everything together. Elsewhere, on “Say What You Want,” he flits atop a skittering piano sample, minimal and graceful, and while the track doesn’t travel far, it’s a welcome breather.
But ultimately, these shadows of excellence do little to break up the sheer monotony of “A”, which if anything, will stand as the most puzzling entry in both Usher and Zaytoven’s bodies of work (and I am counting “Dot Com,” Usher’s 2005 ballad about cybersex that contains the line “I need your backspace in my life/Thank God you don’t have a flat screen”). It’s a shame, because with his abundance of talent, Usher could have contributed something really unique to this moment in R&B, instead of jumping on an already-bursting bandwagon densely populated with artists that execute this style of hip-hop much better than he does. Instead, we’re left with something that’s neither cutting edge nor pleasantly nostalgic—just a bunch of songs that would have fared better with someone else.