10 Best Late-Era Usher Songs

My favorite image of Usher

Today is the day Usher performs at the Super Bowl. It’s a moment both right on time – as he’s enjoying a resurgence in prominence that he hasn’t enjoyed since maybe the height of his fame in 2004 – and long overdue since he’s the biggest star of his generation still around who hasn’t done the Super Bowl yet.

Icons like Usher wax and wane in popularity, but they never really go away because they stay lodged in your brain and your heart even if they slip from the top of the charts. Usher has released 4 albums, a forgettable collaborative album with Zaytoven (A), and an EP (Versus) in 2010 since Here I Stand, which I’m marking as the turning point in his career (read more here).

And in that time, there has been some really great stuff that maybe we all just didn’t fully appreciate. So let me just share with you the 10 best late-era Usher songs that are as good – and in some cases – better than his output during the height of his fame.

10. Good Kisser

“Good Kisser” is the first song since “Pop Ya Collar” to be scrapped as an official single from an Usher album. He’s done this a lot over the last 15 years and it’s irritating. This song was a #1 R&B song even though it didn’t fare so well on the pop charts. It’s an incredible song with Usher showing off that elastic voice to stunning effect, shifting through a number of tempos and cadences as he extols the virtues of his lady’s oral skills. It’s clever, sexy, funky as hell, and should have been included on Hard II Love.

9. Lingerie

“Lingerie” somehow made Versus, but not the official album Raymond v. Raymond where it would have significantly contributed to that album’s success (it was his first disappointing, middling album). To add to the insult, it wasn’t even one of the three singles from Versus! No matter, it’s a funky Avila Bros/Jimmy and Terry song where, like “Good Kisser,” Usher glides smoothly all over his range and through a bunch of tempos that showcase just how adroitly he can use his voice. The period between Confessions and Raymond v. Raymond is easily his most dynamic and enjoyable vocal era and this song is a particularly good example of his vocal prowess.

8. LaLaLa (Black Coffee ft. Usher)

Like all great R&B soul men, Usher really shines on a midtempo. It’s where we can most deeply appreciate how he’s become an incredible vocal stylist over the last 30 years. Midtempos can also be tricky. They can either not feel fast enough or not slow enough resulting in either boredom or an interminable listening experience. Usher, because he has incredible rhythm and a master’s command of his voice, has the ability to give midtempos depth and passion. As a student of Bobby and Michael Jackson, he can often take a percussive, rhythmic approach to his vocals – even on midtempos. On songs like “LaLaLa” with South African DJ Black Coffee, Usher manages to be at once smooth as hell and as percussive as we have come to appreciate. Listen to his read of “Bring back your love again, I’m in again” where “in” is held a tiny bit long. It’s so damn smooth.

7. I Care For You

Looking for Myself was an album that tried to take advantage of the global success of “OMG” – a massive global hit that was also a very bad song – and blend it with Usher’s traditional soulful approach to modern R&B. It doesn’t work as an album, feeling disjointed and opportunistic. But, in retrospect, the album is among the most creatively adventurous albums he’s yet made, with ambitious failures and some truly great songs (about half and half, weirdly).

“I Care For You” is one of a handful of songs that actually manage to successfully embody the spirit and conceit of the album by marrying R&B and more global electronic production styles beautifully in one song. Danja’s production here is relatively sparse, with lots of air between all the bleeps and tricks, which gives Usher, Eric Bellinger, and Kevin Cossum room to spin up a simply gorgeous soul lament melody. It’s a thrilling blend of styles that I wish had been a single.

6. Bump

The-Dream and Tricky Stewart ingeniously sample Uncle Luke’s classic “I Wanna Rock” for a thrilling midtempo banger in “Bump.” Usher’s flawless higher register is crystal clear and absolutely stunning and he’s clearly having fun approximating a standard trap rapper on the verses. The hook is the right kind of repetitive earworm, but it’s that gorgeous bridge that really takes the song to the next level. It’s the moment the song goes from “cool” to “transcendent.” “Bump” is one of two perfect songs on Hard II Love, yet another uneven but interesting album from Usher’s late period. The other is further down on this list.

5. You So Fire

This song leaked in 2010 and is from a really fruitful period between Here I Stand and Raymond v. Raymond where unreleased song after unreleased song — nearly all incredible – were leaking. This song is my favorite of Usher’s unreleased songs. His vocal approach here is so smooth and light – butter. He’s gliding through this with impeccable phrasing and vocal placement. Those “whoas” (phrasing and harmonies) are fucking exquisite. That second verse picks up a tiny bit of steam, ever so slightly. But like all great songs, it’s the bridge that makes the whole thing work. The percussive phrasing of that opening line – “It’s okay to say that what we’re doing is dangerous” – is positively thrilling. The song was a subtle entreaty to sex; with the bridge it gets a bit more insistent. But just for a second before it settles back into the groove. As Usher says, it’s fire.

4. Climax

An obvious choice, but there is no way that I could ever miss an opportunity to extol the beauty of Usher’s incredible falsetto – used to stunning effect on this electronic/soul lament. Usher is always a stunning vocalist, but on “Climax” he’s sounds gorgeous. Those high notes are incredibly difficult, and he makes it sound so effortless – and, most importantly, sings them with the right balance of pleading and soulfulness. Diplo’s production is inventive, without being intrusive, giving Usher all he needs to carry the song with an at-the-time career best vocal performance…

3. Tell Me

…that is until “Tell Me,” which is far and away the best song on Hard II Love. This is one of those old school 8-/9-minute quiet storm ballads filtered through a more modern, quasi-electronic production style that knock you on your motherfuckin ass. Ryan Toby – perhaps Usher’s greatest songwriting partner – writes a marathon vocal workout for Usher that the star treats like light work. The sheer range he displays here is astonishing, but he’s also playing with a lot of vocal colors and textures here in ways that just keep the song perfectly balanced as it cycles through all of the moods. It’s an incredible masterwork that should have earned Toby a permanent co-writing gig. Also, Usher has not performed this song live, which is a crime! I really, really hope he performs this on his next tour.

2. Glu

Let me just get this out of the way: Usher failing to include “Glu” on the official tracklist for the just-released album, Coming Home, is among the stupidest things I’ve seen a star do in a long time. “Glu” is hands down the best song he’s released since “Climax” and is two, three, maybe four times better than that one. Usher’s ability to be incredibly crass, without being sleazy is really impressive. Listen to how he sings “from fuckin” with smooth, airy…grace (that’s the only word that comes to mind lol). This song is not subtle in lyric, but the melody, production, and Usher’s vocal performance make it sensual and seductive, rather than aggressive. He’s again showing off his incredibly dynamic upper register and falsetto. It would be astonishing if it weren’t released in 2023, damn near 30 years after we have grown accustomed to how incredibly dynamic Usher the singer is.

1. Say The Words

By now, its likely clear that midtempo Usher is my favorite Usher. It’s just the mode where his vocal approach is at its richest. Usher’s working in a different key than he has ever really given us before and it’s just…really, really lovely. There’s a wistful, melancholy to “Say The Words” that I don’t think I’ve heard in an Usher song since he covered (masterfully, by the way) Luther’s “Superstar” or perhaps “Separated” from 8701. It’s a good look on him and just allows him to show colors to his artistry that are fresh. “Say the Words” is also just a beautifully written song, with some of the most beautiful lyricism I’ve heard in the last decade or so. I really wish this had been on the official tracklist for Looking 4 Myself – it was a bonus track – and had been a single. I think it’s the best song he’s made since his creative heyday and, for me, one of the two or three best songs he’s ever recorded.

That’s it. What would make y’all list for best late-era Usher songs?

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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