Let It Burn

Why U Still Love Usher, This Generation’s Most Enduring Pop Star

Baby-faced and with a voice like honey, Usher's evolved from middling ’90s R&B novelty to genuine pop star. And with ‘Good Kisser,’ he reminds us why he’s still relevant.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Before there was #TeamBreezy, the perennially hashtagged name of Chris Brown’s self-identified monster of a loyal fanbase, there was me: a sixth-grader with a 28Kbps Internet connection and a played-to-death copy of Usher’s second album, My Way. Mine were not particularly sophisticated online endeavours; I scoured pre-Google search engines for photos of my beloved and reliable addresses to which I could send letters. Eventually, a Geocities-style fansite followed.

All the while, Usher Raymond IV grew from middling R&B novelty—the young, preternaturally talented 14-year-old he was on his first, self-titled album, released in 1994—to veritable pop star, pyrotechnic-ed out stadium tours and all. Usher, much like a young Chris Brown before he was derailed by an inability to keep his hands to himself or otherwise stay out of trouble, was birthed by the music industry a perfect leading man: cutely dimpled with a voice like honey and moves like a technically trained dancer. It was the ’90s and as R&B and hip hop made the transition from niche genres to entertainment staples, Usher was an appropriately friendly proposition.

Today, 20 years after his debut and at a still-baby-faced 35, he is practically an anomaly, one of the only artists from that era still standing, reputation untarnished. The arrival of “Good Kisser,” the excellent new single and video heralding his forthcoming eighth album, is a reminder of just why: The song, on which he sings euphemistically and in multiple registers about “lipstick on his leg,” is plain good.

Centered on a tight, hook-anchoring bassline that rides dancefloor-ready, Rich Harrison-recalling percussion, “Good Kisser” draws from retro funk and soul without being entirely reductive. It’s slicker and more organic-sounding than much of what’s on the radio these days but is conceptually simple enough that it can wedge itself into the tiny crevice between critical success and commercial play. There are only so many forms a pop star can take and Usher, with not a subversive bone in his body, has long played the crowd-pleaser.

The pop landscape is a treacherous one to navigate; a nominal glance at the current career status of his protégé, Justin Bieber, suggests that the law of gravity applies to celebrity as it does matter. But, somehow, Usher—known by the nickname Ursher, baby—has managed to stay pretty close to the top for the better part of two decades. Over seven albums, he has shipped more than 23 million records in the U.S. and more than 65 million globally, making him one of the world’s highest-selling artists. Through it all, he has been a consistent purveyor of carefree party anthems and tawdry bedroom fare, with nine No. 1’s and 18 Top 10’s charting on Billboard’s Hot 100.

But, despite the ubiquity of his music in spin classes, grocery stores, shopping malls, and other venues that are safe spaces for Top 40 radio—did you go anywhere in 2010 without hearing “OMG”?—Usher has skirted the periphery of real cultural impact. Following the release of “Good Kisser,” I was quickly reminded that, while it has been practically impossible to avoid his music, Usher has ridden the industry’s crests rather than spurred them. He was once presumed to be the heir to Michael Jackson’s King of Pop throne, but, since Confessions, the 10-times platinum 2004 concept album loosely based on the pseudo-fictional premise of getting one’s mistress pregnant, he hasn’t been nearly interesting enough to deserve the title.

There’ve been hits—songs like “Love In This Club” and “Lil’ Freak” were radio and club staples and perfectly encapsulated the sound of the post-autotune R&B era. Eventually, Usher shifted slightly toward the then-bourgeoning dance trend. With songs like “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)” and “OMG” from 2010’s Raymond v. Raymond, he adopted the pop-EDM crossover formula that quickly became a go-to for other stars, including, yes, Chris Brown. During that time, his success mounted but he seemed to be distancing himself from cultural relevance.

Much of his work is interchangeable—uniformly good enough but inherently uninteresting: here is Usher doing his signature slide-and-glide, here is a trendy synth-driven party beat, here is a delightfully sticky hook whose most striking quality is that it sounds familiar the first time you hear it. Still, while Usher may not be making challenging music, he’s invested in executing things well, even if he’s done those things a million times before. And, to his credit, the trend-chasing never gave way to desperation, as it so often does with stars who’ve been around as long as he has. His staying power is a testament to the poptimist adage that if someone likes something, it must have some merit.

When he led 2012’s Looking 4 Myself, his seventh, introspection-premised album, with the unexpected Diplo- and Ariel Rechstaid-produced breakup slow burner “Climax,” his falsetto tantalized in a way it hadn’t in years. The album proved to be a disappointment, but his ambitions for his still-untitled forthcoming project appear to be a return to the kind of vintage R&B with which he got his start. It is a near-impossible feat to follow this many years of reliably chart-topping pop music with anything particularly left-field, but if anyone can do it, it’s Usher, who has largely written his own rules and insulated himself from the typical pop star’s tragic trajectory.

The palpable nostalgia wave of 2014 will see new albums from Mariah Carey, Diddy, and J. Lo, among other late ’90s/early aughts stalwarts. But while they plot their comebacks carefully, and as Chris Brown continues to languish in jail, it’s become clear that Usher is the only pop star who never really left at all.