Usher Raymond IV is having a moment. Calling it a second wind doesn’t feel quite apt, since the R&B icon’s sails have never truly stilled. But fresh off a twice-extended Las Vegas residency and on the cusp of a Super Bowl halftime performance and world tour, Usher is back in the popular consciousness in a way he hasn’t been in at least a decade and a half.
The Atlanta crooner wouldn’t be one of the best-selling singers in history if he didn’t have the business sense to match his golden pipes. Usher has appropriately decided to capitalize off his newfound cache with a fresh album, his first solo release in eight years and ninth solo album, COMING HOME.
From his new jack swing-heavy eponymous debut to his Zaytoven-produced trap-inspired album A, every Usher project has incorporated the pop music zeitgeist of the time, whether for better (his career-defining crunk and Hip Hop-infused Confessions) or worse (his experimental EDM album Looking 4 Myself). Each album has seen Usher bridge past R&B and soul greats like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to their descendants, whether it be near-contemporaries like Chris Brown and Ne-Yo or newer acts like Lucky Daye and GIVĒON.
COMING HOME is mostly a departure from Usher’s chameleonic ways. The 45-year-old has so thoroughly become the zeitgeist that he’s now free to zig and zag in any direction he wants to; 30 years deep into his career, Usher is liberated from post-Confessions expectations and the gravity of current trends. This helps explain why the album is an at-times schizophrenic hodgepodge of sounds and styles. There’s Usher in grown and sexy mode (“I Am the Party”), heartbroken (“Ruin”) and heartbreaker (“Cold Blooded”) mode, and glacier-melting carnal mode (“Coming Home”).
It wouldn’t be an Usher album without him tapping up the stars of the moment, starting with Burna Boy who appears on the tone-setting title track that plays like a slice of warm Afrobeats. “Good Good,” a mature breakup anthem squarely in Usher’s comfort zone, features natural counterpart and current R&B torchbearer Summer Walker and a forced verse from 21 Savage. “A-Town Girl” flips a familiar sample (Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”) into a finger-snapping banger and ode to Usher’s hometown. Fellow ATLien Latto plays the part perfectly from “20 floors up on Peachtree.”
Usher’s acclaimed Vegas residency has been a steamy career retrospective full of intimate dancing and nightly reminders of his high placement on “Sexiest Man Alive” lists. COMING HOME‘s strongest section — from “On the Side” to “Luckiest Man” – showcases his ability to channel R&B’s past into wholly and authentically Usher songs. Reuniting with Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, the production and songwriting duo responsible for Usher’s biggest hits, he cops to infidelity yet again on “On the Side,” and slows things down 8701-style on “I Am the Party.”
“I Love U” is a slice of Prince-esque ’80s funk with one of the album’s best vocal performances. Usher soars over the slinking beat like a near-perfect incarnation of the Purple One. “Please U” and “Luckiest Man” round out the mature lover stretch of COMING HOME. These tracks are stark contrasts to today’s preferred brand of toxic R&B: earnest, happy-to-please slow jams that explain the heavily female-skewed crowds that have packed the Park MGM in Vegas, clamoring for “Mr. Entertainment.”
COMING HOME is not a completely smooth return to form. The anodyne paint by numbers club tracks “Kissing Strangers” and “Keep on Dancin'” signal the album’s sagging middle, which features unremarkable beats and uninspired lyrics. Hit-Boy and The-Dream somehow supply a sleepy beat for “Bop,” which is certainly not what its title aims for with clunky lines such as: “Friends chimin’ in, got you undecided/ Hit that defrost for the kid, un-ice it.”
The next track, “Stone Kold Freak,” oozes sex appeal but ultimately limps by with a generic beat produced by Rico Love, Ghost Kid and Keith Thomas. “Risk It All,” a perfectly fine piano ballad with H.E.R., should have stayed on The Color Purple soundtrack, while “Margiela” sees Usher rap-singing over a meandering James Lackey & The-Dream instrumental. It’s astounding that a line like, “Over here floatin’ like Aladdin/ She rubbin’ on me wishin’ for shit, she gotta have it” was ever pressed to wax.
COMING HOME is not Confessions II, but it doesn’t have to be to succeed. The time for a sequel to one of the best-selling R&B albums of the 21st century has passed. In the years since, Usher has released hit-or-miss music, topped “best of” lists for his 1997-2004 output, and has been solidified as a pop and R&B icon. He can also add Super Bowl halftime performer and Tiny Desk favorite to his trophy case.
On COMING HOME, Usher meets the moment without trying to eclipse the past, serving as a reminder that the King of R&B hasn’t gone anywhere.
RELEASE DATE: February 9, 2024
RECORD LABEL: Mega/Gamma
Listen to COMING HOME below: