Can Usher Escape The Nostalgia Trap?

The grandiosity of Super Bowl 58 is somewhat dampened by its matchup: Chiefs vs. 49ers is a rematch that feels more like a retread than a piece of an historic rivalry. Luckily, anyone needing a fix of spectacle and nostalgia can look forward to the halftime show, where R&B superstar Usher, lately acting as the new Sinatra of Las Vegas, will be performing.

Super Bowl halftime gigs are exciting when they create space for an artist to demonstrate the full sweep of their influence over the music industry. Since breaking onto the scene in the mid-90s, Usher has been a dominant teen idol in R&B, an adult flirting with pop superstardom, and now a nostalgia act with a Vegas residency. Throughout these decades, he compiled a discography that helped define R&B and pop in the 20th and 21st centuries. Now 45 years old, he has released a new album, Coming Home, which is pitched as an ode to his hometown of Atlanta. Though I would not classify Usher as the type of artist in need of a comeback record, this release certainly reads as an attempt to capitalize on not only the attention brought on by the halftime show, but the popularity of his Vegas residency. A lot of eyes are on Usher right now, but what does he have to show us?

R&B, like rap, is in a weird space at the moment, and there exists an obvious rift between the young and old. Young R&B stars like SZA, Brent Faiyaz, and Summer Walker are as indebted to Radiohead, New Order, and Björk as they are Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and the Isleys. This stuff doesn’t always appeal to artists and fans who would prefer to keep a tighter grip on the conventions of what makes for good soul music, and those people have recently been catered to by things like Usher’s Vegas residency. You can make a very comfortable career out of giving people a place to live out their nostalgia. His Vegas shows are full of rollerskating routines, elaborate dance numbers, showgirls, and him serenading random women in the crowd, famous and otherwise. All of which has fed into both the virality of the show and its massive popularity.

Coming Home, predictably and perhaps admirably, tries to straddle newness and nostalgia. It does so in a mostly smart ways, modernizing the old soul of Usher’s voice with the popular production styles of the day: deep bass, synth pianos, obvious samples, and a touch of afrobeat. The first single from the album, “Good Good,” which features 21 Savage and Summer Walker, is fun and cute. I mean it. There are also songs on here that seem predestined to pander to future residency crowds. There’s a song sampling Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” which just feels particularly cheap. The standout records are the The-Dream assisted “Cold Blooded,” which is a moody, super-bass record, and the pop-funk of “Keep On Dancin.’” “Stone Kold Freak” is charming for a song about exactly what the title suggests. The album is full of bright spots, but it’s also in search of something that it can’t quite articulate. It merely hopes to make good on the momentum Usher is currently enjoying, but at times you can sense the machinery behind the album trying to convince you to marinate a chicken on TikTok to “Ruin.”

But I don’t want to make this album sound like it was created in a marketing meeting. It’s a good record, if a bit long, and yet it’s not the kind of album that will help Usher out of his current predicament.

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Usher doesn’t totally get the credit he deserves as one of the biggest acts in America, primarily because of how quickly he’s been redefined as an icon of a bygone era, but without receiving much of the prestige that label usually conveys. This is a guy who has given us some of the biggest and most ubiquitous songs in the world, but no one would view him as on par with Michael Jackson, Prince, or even Beyoncé.

There are two reasons for this, I think: The first is that, despite Usher’s dalliances with pop, they are just dalliances. “Yeah!” became the biggest song in America the moment it dropped, and is one of the best pop songs of the century so far, but it also surely left a whole lot of fans who bought Confessions expecting more songs like it feeling a bit disappointed. “OMG” and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” were songs that terrorized my entire college experience, but they are mostly outliers on the album they come from. Usher has never gone full pop, and every superstar has to go full pop at least once if they still want to be selling out worldwide tours into their 40s. Usher’s doing fine—a lucrative Vegas residency and a Super Bowl halftime show aren’t bad consolation prizes—but he’s dangerously close to becoming stuck as a nostalgia act. This is the most attention he’s gotten in years, and it had nothing to do with making something new, but helping us revisit our past in an exciting way.

I do not expect Coming Home to be featured heavily during the show Sunday, which leaves a lot of work to be done if it’s meant to reestablish Usher as a relevant artist making new music. Millions of people watching at home will sway to “Confessions Part II” and nod along to “Yeah!” When they’re done, will they be more likely to rush to listen to Usher’s new music, or begin hoping for another residency? It’s hard to resist the allure of going back to live as we used to.

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