Usher and Zaytoven Pay Tribute to Atlanta on ‘A’

In celebration of his 40th birthday, Usher has released a surprise album in collaboration with Atlanta producer Zaytoven. It’s succinctly titled “A,” and the letter stands for Atlanta, where Usher also grew up. The recording was unplanned, and came together spontaneously in a mere five days. Fittingly, the songs generally sound casually strung together rather than meticulously planned. It’s a laid-back, easy album with a lighthearted, unassuming sound. Long term fans of Usher might be slightly caught off guard, as this is a considerable deviation from his classic sound. There aren’t really any bellowing tearjerkers here, instead the album finds Usher adapting his style to a trap framework.

“Stay at Home” starts thing off with some deep bass, and Usher singing phrases in trap triplets. Future shows up and does what he always does. Recently, rappers are often more of singers than rappers — consider the melodic flow of Young Thug for example. Conversely, R&B singers sound more like rappers, and the lines have really started to blur.  “Ata” is a breezy, good times jam, with a gibberish chorus of “L-l-lay-lay.” Usher sounds smooth as ever, and when he occasionally flourishes a line with extra melisma, it’s intoxicating. “Peace Sign” starts with Usher in full helium falsetto, then finds him flowing in the type of syllable-crammed laid-back croon that R Kelly has popularized. There’s a trap element to the beat, and the fluidity of Usher’s vocals over the stuttering hi hats makes for a hard-hitting sound. If you expected a pacifist anthem from the title, you’ll be in for a surprise. One line is “Legs up like a peace sign.” “You Decide” follows in a long contemporary R&B tradition — the apology jam. When the Mrs. is upset, there are tracks like this. Imagine all the gusto with which rappers talk of how hard they party, and apply it to a pity party — a three and a half minute exposition of prostate begging and pleading, with vocals that impressively capture the plight of the lyrics in their ambitious whininess.  

“Birthday” picks things back up, bringing things back into dance floor territory. It’s a song for twerking, with cat calls of “It’s your birthday.” It’s like an R&B spin on 50 Cent’s “In the Club.” “She Aint Tell Ya” arguably captures the essence of the album more than any other track. The beat is essentially a loop, and Usher sings the titular line repeatedly, finishing the sentence in a different way each time. It has the feel of a freestyle, with its loose structure, and spontaneous nature. “Say What U Want” is a sure standout, as it features Usher actually singing, in contrast to the half sung, half rapped vocals that show up on most of the tracks.  The beat is one of Zaytoven’s signature piano-heavy productions. The free form, jazzy piano is what really makes the track, giving it something of a Bohemian vibe. The moments when Usher taps into falsetto are the most satisfying bits, and will be pleasing to long term fans who have been waiting to hear him back at his game. “Gift Shop” features rapper Gunna spitting some bars. There’s a catchy chorus that hammers itself into your head with its incessant repetition. Usher’s clipped, meandering melodies are infectious. The lyrics couldn’t be more generic, with the main line being “Treat the Gucci store like a gift shop.”

“A” can come across as a rather tawdry attempt to change with the times, as Usher neglects to indulge in the type of vocal acrobatics with which he made a name for himself. However, it’s important to remember that this album was made in less than a week. When artists act on whims, and allow songs to develop naturally, without belaboring the details, it results in a purer form of expression. The songs here sound fresh from creative impulse. The trap stylings ground the album in the present moment, and place Usher’s signature sound in an updated context.

A” is available Oct. 12 on Apple Music.