Usher’s claim to superstardom has always run in tandem with the need to prove that he is one. On “Coming Home,” his ninth studio album, the singer knows that the only critic he has to satisfy is himself. At best, the album is a firm extension of his easily adaptable R&B-centered sound that he’s sustained over a 30-year career.
When the 45-year-old debuted at 15, he had to prove that he could sing about the mature topics of love and sex as if he was 15 years older. With the more age-appropriate 1997 album “My Way,” he proved he could be an R&B star. In 2004, Usher showed that his sharp R&B sensibilities could rule the pop charts with the release of his diamond-selling blockbuster “Confessions.”
The Grammy winner’s post-”Confessions” era featured an amalgamation of experiments to prove that the depths of his vocal talent could shine outside of R&B (see 2010′s autotune-injected hit “OMG,” 2011′s David Guetta-produced EDM smash “Without You” or his 2018 joint LP “A,” an ode to his hometown’s trap sound backed by Zaytoven beats). He nailed those landings with ease. More recently, he has been at the center of confounding online debates on whether he could battle his forebear R. Kelly or his successor Chris Brown in a Verzuz battle. He has more No. 1 hits (and a less problematic career) than both.
On the eve of the Atlanta singer’s Super Bowl halftime performance, where he has to, once again, prove his eminence to the masses, he dropped “Coming Home,” an album that honors his chameleonic trajectory. Burden of proof be damned.
“[I] don’t want to be categorized as just an R&B artist,” Usher said during his Super Bowl press conference on Thursday. “I’m an artist who loves music. I’m an artist who’s lived through my emotional experiences and was able to share it through this genre. But I want it to speak to the entire world that if you believe in something and you put the work in, you can have anything. You can try and create anything.”
Released today, “Coming Home” is Usher’s first solo album since 2016′s “Hard II Love.” It’s also his first album as an independent artist (it’s released via Mega, his music company with L.A. Reid, in partnership with Gamma, a new artist platform fronted by Larry Jackson). Across a whopping 20 tracks, “Coming Home” prioritizes Usher’s propensity for reinvention and knack for embracing personas, all while honoring the city that made him a star.
On “Cold Blooded,” which features Atlanta’s The-Dream and production from Pharrell, Usher becomes a resentful lover on a haunting electronic beat. “Kissing Strangers” is pop mastery at its finest that feels nostalgic. Backed by production from late hitmaker Busbee, the track is a bubbly tribute to an ex who’s deeply missed. The sensual “I Am the Party,” crafted by Atlanta producers Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, has the old-school R&B feeling that made fans fall in love with him.
On “I Love U,” he teams with The-Dream again and other Grammy-winning producers such as D’Mile and the Atlanta-based Tricky Stewart for a funky jam that’s reminiscent of the lust and lore of late ‘80′s-era new jack swing.The chart-topping “Good Good,” which features fellow Atlanta artists Summer Walker and 21 Savage, has a hook that’s so understated, so succinct and so infectious that it has become the amicable breakup anthem of the moment (”We ain’t good, good, but we still good,” Usher sings on the chorus). The song peaked at no. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it dropped last year, becoming his first top 30 hit in nearly a decade.
Usher reaches the peak of his malleable powers on “Ruin.” It features Nigerian singer Pheelz, who also produced the track. Usher’s soft tone and skillful vocal arrangements effortlessly cruise across lush Amapiano melodies that make the case for Afrobeats to be the next stop along Usher’s sprawling journey of reinvention.
Long albums can be tricky. As the album progresses, each song has to be fascinating enough to keep the listener’s attention. “Coming Home” could have stood to lose a few tracks. “A-Town Girl” (a flip on Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”) is fun in theory, posing as a love letter to Atlanta that features Clayton County rapper Latto. In practice, it comes off as a track they created on a whim during a karaoke session. The H.E.R.-assisted “Risk It All” — from “The Color Purple” ― is a smooth ballad that feels oddly placed here (highlighting the troubles of including a song from a film soundtrack on an album).
Similarly, the remix of Jungkook’s “Standing Next to You,” a smart collaboration given Usher’s influence on K-Pop, shines brighter as a single than as part of the album. But a benefit of having longer albums is having a strong set of songs that make the fillers sounds less distracting. The album’s strength lies in its latter half — delivering seductive, feel-good songs that make his female fans feel and believe he’s talking directly to them (see the Lucky Daye-written “Please U” or “Luckiest Man”). Usher is home, and he doesn’t overstay in welcome.
“Coming Home” is a generally delightful embrace of Usher’s return. With the Super Bowl on Sunday and a North American tour this summer, he’s already geared to have a busy 2024. But the superstar loves a challenge.
“Coming Home” has the sound and soul of a veteran who’s not afraid to learn new tricks.
DeAsia is an award-winning music and culture journalist whose work has been featured in Pitchfork, NPR Music, Teen Vogue and more. She focuses on the intersection of arts, culture, and diverse communities, as well as how emerging social trends are being expressed through the lens of the Atlanta aesthetic.