When Usher released "Climax" in early 2012, people listened in awe. I surely did, and still do when I’m lucky enough to hear it.
Not only is the song still overwhelmingly powerful, but it seemed as if the OG singer-songwriter had perfected his craft in a way rarely seen by popular artists: he bent a genre to fit his style. With a great assist from Diplo, Usher made R&B music work for his range and emotions, as opposed to having genre tropes lead the conversation. Fans and critics pleading for "real R&B" from Usher—or, in other words, his old 'ish to help feed the nostalgia beast—tucked it in when “Climax” came out.
And then, Usher released the second single off Looking 4 Myself, "Lemme See.” Uh oh.
The Rick Ross-assisted track leaned towards generic rap with a predictable storyline and production that could've been a throwaway for any R&B singer dabbling in hip-hop. There was a George Zimmerman namecheck. The pre-chorus is all kinds of messy. After dropping “Climax,” Usher was going nowhere fast with this one.
Fast-forward four years, and again, Usher has pit two singles against one another, unleashing two disparates and achieving wildly different results. Once again, it's clear which one of "Crash" and "No Limit" (featuring Young Thug) is superior.
"Crash" is reminiscent of "Climax"; not entirely because of the production, although it does have electro-inspired beat as the Looking 4 Myself album single. The songwriting, simple and straightforward, hits hard: "Up all night, can't let go / It's worth the fight," he croons. "Crash" is driven by longing, and showcases Usher's vocal flexibility in a way that feels classic but also forward-thinking.
Meanwhile, "No Limit"–laced with Thugger adlibs–pays homage to Master P's "Make 'Em Say Ugh," and is a clear reach towards the mainstream. Usher spit-sings predictably, "No limit/ Got that Master P, no limit, baby/ Give you that black card, no limit/ Just know when you roll with a ni--a like me there's no limit."
Usher is appealing to two audiences, fans and rap heads, with these singles. The thing is, "No Limit" feels familiar, since it follows a blueprint he's not only done before but what many have done: R&B singer pays homage to 90s/early 00s R&B/rap by bringing in one of the hottest rappers in the game. But Usher doesn't need to do that, especially when he has his shit together on the other end.