2013 was a great year for funky singles in the mainstream music world. Records like “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk ft Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams, and of course, the international smash “Happy” by Pharrell, carved out a strong place both on the dance floors, on peoples cell phones, and laptops and tablets, and at all sorts of social outings. They were ubiquitous enough to terrorize millenials weaned on auto tune and more rigid, computerized beats. I’d wondered for some time when one Usher Raymond would come on in and join this funky party. Ushers spent the better part of the past few albums chasing down European EDM dance while his blue eyed soul conterparts splashed torso deep into funk. Despite Ushers impressive career resume, outstanding charisma, and great dancing and vocal talent, I thought he’d forever be chained to the tastes of the teeny bopper side of the “urban” crowd, the one that votes your video to the top of BET’s 106th & Park. I got a firm backhand from Mr. Raymond earlier this month when he released today’s fonky pick, “Good Kisser.”
“Good Kisser” is a dramatic, funky song of sensual romantic praise. It has a mean groove and is centered in its funky rhythms as Usher also puts on a clinic in various tonalities of soulful male vocals. The topic is pure sensual satisfaction, placing it in the line of many great soul songs of the past, including Ben E King’s “Supernatural Thing”, but that topic of sensual satisfaction, of a man giving praise instead of shaming for the sensual gratification he gets, is one that was once prevelant in R&B but has been far less so since Hip Hop’s locker room slut shaming came to predominate.
One of the first things I notice about the song musically is how heavy it is on the ONE, the first beat of the measure that provides a musical grounding point that James Brown told us was the most important beat and George Clinton expanded into a way of life. The song is built on this “ONE” centered drum and bass part. The drum simply plays kicks on the first beat and the third beats of the four four measure. There is no snare drum on the back beat, the “2” and “4”, in fact, for the whole song, there is no snare, saving the snare drum pick ups on the upbeat that lead our ears and bodies back to the “ONE.” The snare drum pick up, occuring on the upbeat of beat three, is matched by a low register, serious three note bass line. That bass line lands on the “ONE” of the next beat, sounding like a firm period at the ending of the sentence, or a word that contains the message of the beat. This upbeat drum pickup landing on the one sort of gives the song a funky West Indian or Carribean flavor. The bassline is the major motif of the song, as Usher builds vocal lines off the notes and the rhythm of this bassline later in the song. The drum beat and bass line continue the same way for the entirety of the song, as Usher adds different vocal textures, various chord progressions come in, and the basic drum beat is augmented with percussion, but the basic bass and drum motif remains unchanged, rigid, and marching on with an almost martial, military feel.
The scene is set by the four bar intro of the bass and drums, which gives you an expectant, almost cinematic military feel. This feel is rather enhanced in the music video as the music video takes place in a cold grey enviroment. Usher whispers romantic encouragements and flirtatious phrases during the intro. Following the intro, Usher sings in what is a new vocal tone for him to my ears, a funky, spoken/sung baritone. It takes both from classic funksters like Larry Blackmon (without the extra “ow”) and funky ’90s hip hop oriented singers like Portrait or BBD or Blackstreet. Usher uses this funky baritone to tell his lady (and by extension us) ” I Done been around the world/I Done kissed a lot of girls”. Right away he positions himself lyrically as a romantic lover of great experience, a grown man. That’s one of the things I like about this track, while so many in pop culture strain for youth today, Usher embraces a youthful but experienced lyrical perspective.
After 8 bars of that funky baritone, Usher gives us 8 bars of falsetto. The falsetto is right there on the sensual edge, like Marvin Gaye or Al Green, the sound of a man at HIS sensual edge. Then Usher comes with another vocal tone for the pre chorus, another baritone sound, but smoother than the rhythmic baritone of the verse. And I’m crazy about the way he begins it :
“The Devil is a Lie/ Them other girls/can’t compete with mine”
I dig the lyric so much because “The Devil is a lie” is a phrase you’ll hear all day among black evangelical thinking communities. I love Ushers usage of it in a “profane” sexual context though, which is a great part of the tradition of black music, the conversation between the spiritual and the sensual, as Ray Charles did way back on “I Got a Woman.” Usher uses it here to place his woman above any and all competition. The other thing I like is the vocals on this pre chorus are based around the rhythm and notes of the bass line. This pre chorus as well as the chorus also introduce harmony into the song, brightening it up with a jazzy chord progression, while the militant rhythm remains unabated. For the chorus itself, after so much rhythmic wordiness, Usher relaxes, one might say climaxing, simply singing “She’s such a good kisser” both in lead and harmony. Usher comes back after that with a powerful full voice vocal, building up to the gospel melismatic style. I like that. Oft times in R&B the last 20 years or so, singers have overdosed on runs before the song even starts. Here Usher builds up to the climax we all seek, and I think the song is much better for it.
I love the rhythmic orientation of the song as well as Usher’s vocal performance. He gives us baritone, falsetto, and his natural high tenor stretched out to the max, while also going between choppy rhythms and looser, more flowing parts. The song also revitalizes the classic R&B hallmark of double entendre, as he actually says in the song “Cant nobody kiss IT like you.” However, for those with virginous ears, they can simply choose to hear the rather benign “You’re such a good kisser.” But one day they will wonder why a grown man was singing about a woman being a good kisser with such passion and excitement!
One of the things that shows me Usher really has something with the song is the mixed responses to it on the net. There are some folks who totally get it, in the vein of “thats REAL music.” And there are other young people who simply dismiss it as, “It’s garbage” or “he could have done much better.” I think for the young, many of them don’t understand AT ALL the soul/funk/jazzy music practices Usher and crew are laying down here, nor the tradition of being right on the lines of nastiness in lyrical forthwrightness. I hope they get on board though, because Usher’s “Good Kisser” has the potential to be a game changer in a funky R&B sense. I also have to give props to my man for posing in the video playing the drum fill, which kinds of gives people a visual of how the music would LOOK being played. It’s early, but I might have found the song to give me my funky summer swagger.