What’s Going On With Usher Lately?

If there’s one thing that I seem to love doing lately is reminding everyone how much time has passed since my youth.

Following in that trend, I’ll drop this little nugget: it has been ten years since Usher released Confessions, his game-changer that became the last album to go Diamond until Adele’s 21.

I call Confessions a game-changer because it literally catapulted the R&B singer into that special stratosphere of pop superstardom. Confessions was to Usher what The Bodyguard was to Whitney Houston, Come on Over was to Shania Twain, and, in some respects, Thriller was to Michael Jackson. It was that silver bullet of an album, a perfect storm of singles, videos, style and even newsworthiness that made Usher the biggest male pop star on the planet at the time. Prior to 2004, Usher was a more than competent R&B singer with plenty of hits under his belt, some of them considered classics. With Confessions, he delivered the critical and commercial juggernaut that made suggestions of his future reign as King of Pop plausible.

Ten years later, Justin Timberlake is gliding across a soundstage to his own duet with Michael Jackson, a certified global smash. Meanwhile, Usher’s new single “Good Kisser” is floundering, even after a performance on The Voice, the show he’s on every week as a judge.

Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

I’m definitely not the first person to invoke a JT/Usher comparison, and as both continue vying for pop dominance, I won’t be the last. Yet, JT figures a lot less into Usher’s downward slide than one would think. Usher has fallen behind the rest of the cultural landscape. For a man who actually defined that landscape at one point, it’s a bit sad to watch.

The first red flag raised came earlier this year, after Pharrell made international headlines with the now iconic Grammys hat. Usher was spotted walking around wearing a raccoon hat in public. If done once, this could have been the most fantastically shady moment since Madonna called Lady Gaga “redundant”. But then he started wearing it everywhere (Vulture has a great retrospective), and it became clear Usher was either trying to make his own buzzy fashion statement or trying to ape off of Pharrell’s heightened presence. Either way, it was a surprisingly uncool moment for someone who usually embodied cool. Pharrell’s hat worked because, as absurd as it was, it kind of made sense with his wacky, avant-garde, fountain of youth fashion quirk. Usher’s Davy Crockett look was random, out of place and plain old stupid.

Usher also wore that hat in Chris Brown’s music video for his hit song “Loyal” (which I wrote about earlier this week). Red flag #2. Usher (and his hat) hanging out with Brown scouting girls on an escalator. On what planet does Usher, a 35-year old with two kids, being out on the prowl with Chris Brown, a 24 year old who can be politely described as troubled, make sense? It’s not even the numerical age gap that’s the problem; it’s the life experience. Usher has been there and done that and he’s shown that he’s beyond that life. Appearing as Chris Brown’s wingman in a music video is such a downgrade that it can’t even be seen as a favor (like Michael Jackson’s feature in Eddie Murphy’s 90s music video; yes it happened). It comes off as an unfortunate attempt at making himself relevant to Brown’s demographic, the same demographic that purchased “OMG” in droves,  without gimmicky cameos and silly hats (and hairstyles; I’ve been needing him to cut his hair for two years now).

And that leaves us with the music. Usher unveiled “Good Kisser” a couple of weeks ago, the presumed lead single from his upcoming followup to 2012’s underrated Looking 4 Myself. While I’ve admittedly warmed up to the song a bit, it’s still shocking how hookless and lacking in melody it is. It sounds nothing like what’s on radio at the moment, which can be commended, but it’s not groundbreaking (like the brilliant “Climax”) and lacks any real radio hit potential, that will effectively kill the song’s momentum on the charts. This, coming from an artist who delivered last decade’s most enduring smashes, like “Yeah!” and “OMG”. It’s not the most promising start to an album that’s supposed to answer questions to Usher’s relevance.

All of this taken into account, Usher seems like he’s in some kind of panic, a pre-middle age crisis that has him worried about his status. He’s grasping for relevance wherever he can find it and releasing music that is ostensibly fresh, but goes against what made him the Prince of Pop in the first place, his knack for crafting effortless smashes that last. Without that, and his continued descent into uncool territory, relevance is a road he’s about to careen right off of. It’s a shame because Looking 4 Myself, despite its commercial disappointment, was an excellent step in the right direction. Usher showed signs of growth, being in touch with musical trends and bending them to his will, and still being effortlessly cool. That Usher wouldn’t run around the world in a raccoon hat singing some dire 70’s throwback about being a good kisser. Usher needs to shake this whole thing off and go back to dominating the music world.


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