Since 1994 when Usher dropped his self-titled debut album, he has been a fixture on the Billboard charts, collectively selling over 43 million albums worldwide and winning dozens of awards for his accomplishments, including Grammys, Billboard Music Awards, and Soul Train Music Awards. Each record brings an evolution of the artist we've grown to love, barely departing from a solid formula of club and smooth R&B.
Yet, this feels like the first album in almost a decade that Usher has let us in. Last night, I attended the Tidal Playback Exclusive Listening Party at the gorgeous Ace Theatre, where Usher talked about the new album track-by-track.
The common theme of the night: honesty. The result: pure artistic integrity.
In an evening that felt more like an intimate conversation with a close friend, Usher's confessions of loss, pain and heartbreak reminded the audience that in spite of becoming a musical icon, he is also a human. His explanations weren't trite or superficial- each song on the new record Hard II Love is dripped in meaning, exploring the deepest canyons of Usher's life, including the death of his ex-stepson, loss of love and appreciating a woman in a new way.
Usher's thumbprint is found in nearly every aspect of his 8th studio album: the artwork, track listing, lyrics and life inspirations.
As he recalled the hours it took to cast the bust that made the album cover, he described the claustrophobic process of not being able to see or hear for nearly three hours as it set with straws up his nose to breathe. The audience collectively gasped. This was a man who was serious about pushing his own limits on this new record, and the theme continues with lyrical content.
The most stunning part of the evening was sharing that experience with Usher, because the exchange feels so risky, sharing such a personal body of work with an audience for the first time. At times, it was clear certain songs were pure fun for him, and at other moments, his face was deep with emotion, like during "Stronger." He shared glances with the audience, and never for a moment came off as a multi-platinum selling artist. From start to finish, Usher was humble, gracious and generous.
Hard II Love just proves Usher wrong-- there isn't anything hard to love about him from where I'm sitting.
Listen to full record now on Tidal.