Usher – Hate II Love
The ironic mode doesn’t suit the most self-abasing of modern R&B singers. “Don’t give up on me now,” he pleads over the stuttering backtrack of the D’Mile-helmed “FYM,” for after all she’s seeing him try to be “a better man.” “Confessions” familiarized us with this crap: “I’m Usher Raymond IV, you’re not, forgive me for cheating and lying.” Retaining his coltish charm while expanding the range of his persuasive powers, Usher would seem to fit into a pop landscape in which Drake and The Weeknd have plumbed the depths of caddishness; instead, he’s spent the last four years since Looking 4 Myself sticking wary toes into the water with uneven singles. Listening to “Missin’ U,” anchored by a sample from Steely Dan’s devastating “Third World Man,” he sounds as tentative as a man talked into trying buttsex. But when he eschews the masochism, he remains the best of modern R&B singers. The title track, a stirring midtempo number with guitar, coaxes out of him a becoming anger bordering on sadism. Keeping an eagle on Miguel and Frank Ocean may have inspired the eight-minute “Tell Me,” in which Usher gets himself into a lather about wanting the kind of union “where two become one.” The Spice Girls got that right twenty years ago. Then there a movie theme co-sung with Rubén Blades to remind the audience that Usher can’t sequence albums anymore — or maybe he or the label stuck “Champions” at the end knowing we’re likelier to skip it.
Vince Staples – Prima Donna (EP)
One of the few recent EPs with the heft of a statement instead of a trayful of discards, Prima Donna maintains its intensity. On “Smile,” the Long Beach native manipulates his frayed tea kettle whine for pathos and anger. “I feel my life is in danger every night when I lay,” he talk-sings, and paired with DJ Dahl’s staccato scratches and distortions the danger has presence. Undercutting it is Staples himself; that frayed tea kettle whine isn’t made for vulnerability, which must be why not everyone I knew in 2015 flipped for Summertime ’06. Even better is “Big Time,” with James Blake’s rolling snares and video game bloops undergirding the most persuasive of Staples’ brags.