It seems to be a common trend among artists to release surprise albums these days, from Beyoncé to Eminem to The Weeknd. Courtesy of celebrated singer–songwriter Usher and record producer Zaytoven (both hailing from Atlanta), A was released October 12 after being announced the previous day. At eight tracks and just over 27 minutes in length, A follows summer records such as Pusha T’s Daytona and Kanye West’s Ye in attempting to emphasize quality and cohesiveness over quantity—but does it succeed? Let’s dive in.
The artists bring the heat out of the gate with “Stay at Home,” which features fellow Atlantean Future. From the start, it’s clear that the album is going to be full of Zaytoven’s signature trap instrumentals, a combination of piano and alternating drums and claps. The lyrics might be a little vapid (“Popping champagne out in Paris/Water my team, do better karats” is a particularly poor line), but the flow is there; Usher and Future both bring their A–game to get your head bumping as they brag about their lavish lives and share their worry about cheating lovers. However, the problem with the next song, “ATA,” is that it’s essentially the same content, discussing a “helipad on the mansion” and “spilling drinks in the Jacuzzi.” With a chorus full of fluff repeating the word “lay,” the track is incredibly forgettable, and has you question if you just listened to a bad version of “Stay at Home.”
“Peace Sign” is a welcome change of pace that allows Usher to display his excellent falsetto; Zaytoven stays away from the claps and allows the singer to work his magic as he expresses his passion for a lover. It’s short and sweet, although perhaps a bit too repetitive on the chorus and hook. That’s where “You Decide” messes up; Usher spends half the song repeating “give me another chance” and little else—it comes across as uninspired, especially as Zaytoven fails to mix up the formula on the beat. Skip it.
As “Birthday” begins playing, you get the sense that A is going to alternate between bangers and abysmal pieces. The background xylophone is a slick compliment as Usher speeds up his style and details how he plans to celebrate his girl’s birthday. Thematically, the artists have made their intent for the album clear—heavy focus on the standard R&B trope of love. This continues in “She Ain’t Tell Ya,” but once more the pitfall of repetition rears its ugly head. The production sounds the same as earlier tracks, and Usher begins nearly every line with “She ain’t tell ya,” becoming ridiculously irritating halfway through. There are better ways of waxing about the secrets of relationships.
“Say What You Want” is a masterpiece, reminiscent early 2000s Usher hits such as “U Don’t Have to Call” and “U Got It Bad.” He hits all the high notes as Zaytoven sticks to a minimalist approach on the piano. Lines such as “Is this the end of our time let me know/If we make it through the pain we’ll grow” nail the pain of dealing with a potential breakup; you feel the singer’s anguish come to life. It’s a shame that “Gift Shop” follows as A’s conclusion—even with their smooth flows, there’s nothing interesting in hearing Usher and featured artist Gunna boast about their wealth and promiscuity. You want more out of the final song of an album, but the track fails to provide that.
TL;DR: Usher and Zaytoven fall short of achieving the quality of other recent short albums with some dull selections, but A still has its hits. The singer’s ability to flex his famous vocal range over the producer’s trap–piano instrumentals make the record a worthwhile listen. However, it gets bogged down by repetitive content and lyrics. “Stay at Home” and “Say What U Want” are must–listens; skip “ATA” and “You Decide.”