There is a battle for the soul of R&B being waged by two musical camps: revivalists who are keeping the genre tied to its roots by creating music that borrows heavily from classic R&B, and futurists who are fond of imbuing R&B with electronic dance elements that take the music to an entirely new place. The superstar Usher has been pulled in both directions for years — for every house-leaning track, such as the David Guetta-produced “Without You,” or dance track, such as “OMG,” there was a more traditional entry along the lines of “There Goes My Baby” or “Daddy’s Home.”
Yes, some of the music skews club (“Scream”), and other songs could be classified as soul balladry (“What Happened to U”), but all of the tracks attempt a mix. The best do it incredibly well.
The jewel is the already ubiquitous, surprisingly soulful “Climax,” which is about the end of a relationship and not, as people who haven’t listened to the lyrics insist, doing it. Usher’s shimmering falsetto highs and big power notes are enveloped by a track from M.I.A. producer and Mad Decent honcho Diplo. The composition manages to be one of the most delicate and nuanced of the producer’s career without abandoning the throb for which he is known.
“I Care For U,” an atmospheric Danja track, shows that busy production can be just as much of a sexy backdrop for soulful vocals as more sparse compositions. The Will.I.Am-produced “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is high-powered, but an electronic rendering of the “whoa oh oh” bridge of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” mellows things out a little. The Neptunes-produced “Twisted” is probably the most interesting blend — think Chad Hugo in the studio with Chubby Checker. The song incorporates bass and synth with elements of ’60s dance craze songs like “The Twist” or “Shake a Tail Feather,” showing that when it comes to R&B, honoring the past and looking to the future isn’t an either/or proposition.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.
“Climax,” “Twisted,” “I Care For U”