On the Eve of the Super Bowl, Usher Proves His Mastery


It has taken perseverance, extraordinary musical gifts and a little luck for Usher to land where he is right now. At 45, the R&B singer and songwriter Usher Raymond is releasing his new album, “Coming Home,” just two days before he will headline the Super Bowl halftime show. In December 2023, he completed an acclaimed 100-show residency in Las Vegas. His single “Good Good,” released last summer, has racked up tens of millions of plays on Spotify. It’s one of the 20 tracks on “Coming Home,” an album that sums up and expands what Usher does best.

Usher returns in familiar guises on “Coming Home,” his ninth solo album, and first since 2016. He plays a loyal partner (“Keep on Dancin’”), a sensualist (“Please U”), a heartsick ex (“Cold Blooded”), a somewhat repentant cheater (“On the Side”), a confident stud (“Big”) and a proud product of Atlanta (“A-Town Girl,” a catalog of local references that samples Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”).

The personas are familiar, and so is Usher’s musical universe, with the supple physicality of his vocals floating in electronic soundscapes. But he still comes up with ingenious variations on his longtime subjects. “Good Good,” which features Summer Walker and 21 Savage, is a downright mature post-breakup song about genuinely staying friends afterward. “Usually my exes turn to enemies/But this is different,” Usher marvels.

Usher is three decades into a recording career that hit its first commercial peak with his 1997 album, “My Way,” and earned him five consecutive No. 1 albums from 2004 (the blockbuster “Confessions”) to 2012 (“Looking 4 Myself”). He carries the skills of the analog era — when real-time performance was everything — into the digital landscape, making music that’s exquisitely calculated but still places his voice at its emotional core.

That voice can be grainy or lascivious or achingly sincere, and it easily ascends to an otherworldly falsetto. Usher draws deeply on some of the best elements of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. He’s also a precise, disciplined and riveting dancer — something to look forward to at the Super Bowl.

Usher’s electronic R&B taps into slow-swaying 1970s soul, synthesized 1980s pop and 21st-century trap with equal dexterity; he can be carnal, earnest, mournful or ecstatic. And he’s adept at the studio-collaborative methods of the 21st century, putting out songs with Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys and many others without being upstaged.

On Usher’s most recent past albums — “Hard II Love,” from 2016, and his 2018 collaboration with the producer Zaytoven, “A” — he strove to fit himself into a current sound, wedging his long-breathed phrases and pleasure-seeking instincts into the brittle, fractured imperatives of trap. The tension showed.

But after more than a year of revisiting his entire career with the shows in his Las Vegas residency, Usher has recognized his strengths: not getting mired in the bleak virtual terrain of trap, but providing a glossy, seductive alternative. During Usher’s time between albums, K-pop was reviving — nearly to the point of plagiarism — both the sound and the dance moves of Usher’s generation of R&B. He has capitalized on the K-pop connection. Another single released before “Coming Home” was “Standing Next to You (Usher Remix),” a duet with the K-pop star Jung Kook from BTS; it echoes both Jackson and the horns of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Along with K-pop, Usher has also latched on to the African pop that has lately gone global. The Nigerian superstar Burna Boy joins on the title track of “Coming Home,” a crisp electronic shuffle about returning from a tour and heading directly to the bedroom. “Ruin” — about an ex who left the singer so heartbroken he can’t even speak to all the other girls who (humblebrag) are calling him — was produced by Pheelz, a Nigerian songwriter who also adds vocals. But its beat and its languid keyboard chords are closer to South African amapiano, leaving ample space for Usher’s plaints.

Throughout the album, Usher cruises through the musical and dramatic challenges that he has set for himself. In “On the Side,” he comes up with a new melody — faster, more syncopated, higher, jumpier — and a different mood and vocal tone for each verse. In “Kissing Strangers,” as he sings about wishing he could forget a failed romance, he ricochets between sounding utterly alone and getting buffeted from all directions by the voices in his head.

“Coming Home” could have trimmed back some of its 20 tracks. But its excess signals a self-confidence that seemed to elude Usher after “Looking 4 Myself.” Now he has proved that he didn’t have to update his sound. He was here already.

Usher
“Coming Home”
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