Songland has welcomed some A-list guest stars over its two seasons, including John Legend, the Jonas Brothers, Luis Fonsi, and Boyz II Men. But the show saved the best for the last this Monday, when eight-time Grammy-winning R&B superstar Usher appeared on the Season 2 finale.
“Usher is an absolutely legend. He has a magnetism about his personality that is infectious, and he knows what a hit is,” raved judge Ryan Tedder. “He’s had more than I can count!”
To be specific, Usher has charted 18 top 10 hits and nine No. 1s in the United States alone. While his last few singles have failed to crack the top 10, fans’ anticipation for his next album, Confessions II — his first proper studio LP since 2016, and the sequel to 2004’s 10-times-platinum classic Confessions — runs high. So as he came to Songland looking for his next hit, Usher was taking the process seriously.
“This show is a necessity,” Usher excitedly stressed. “People don’t really understand what we have to go through when creating a song, and I love that it teaches people that there’s a process. … That process is what I enjoy more than anything. There’s not too many shows where three different perspectives [of the judges/mentors] come together, but all for a common goal: to create something that people will be able to grow from, feel something from, and get better from.”
Of the four contestants who pitched songs to the soul star, Fatherdude’s rangey, fiery, but unfocused gospel-pop barnstormer “Billions” was immediately ruled out — a decision I could mostly get behind, as the song was all wrong for Usher in 2020, but was still disappointing since I couldn’t help but root for a guy who got his stage name from Mystery Science Theater 3000. Miranda Glory’s sassy breakup song “Salty” was much more modern, smooth but with ‘tude, and it had enough potential to advance to the workshop round — but even mentor Tedder’s attempt to retool it to a male perspective, with a total lyrical overhaul and his own guest vocals, couldn’t quite make it work. And so, it all came down to Ryan Cam’s low-key, Drake-y “Staying Over” and David Wade’s Gyptian-sampling dancehall floor-filler “Horse ‘N Carriage.”
Not being nearly as stellar as singer as Usher, Cam, who had never pitched to any artist before, had trouble selling his song in the first round. His smarmy delivery made him seem unlikable and made his lothario lyrics, which probably would have been completely convincing coming from Usher, feel like Lonely Island clichés. Plus, his performance was so sleepy and mellow, never really getting to where it needed to go. But judge Ester Dean had a vision, and so off to the workshop round with Cam she went. When they returned, she had worked her magic, adding some ‘swag,” beefing it up, making it more dynamic, and changing the title to “California.” Usher was impressed. “This song feels relevant. It feels like it’s on the radio right now. And it sounds cool,” he said.
Wade’s “Horse ‘N Carriage,” on the hand, didn’t need much workshopping. This one was a bop from the start. Usher was totally vibing to Wade’s audition, calling it a “world-type record” and scatting and improv-ing along. “This is that club, sexy feeling, and we don’t have that right now,” purred Dean. But since Dean was already busy with Cam, Wade was assigned to collaborate with judge Shane McAnally. McAnally could have been out of his depth here, since he has only written country hits, but with such great raw material to work with, and with his storytelling style, McAnally was able to take Usher’s direction to make the lyrics more universal. Usher later high-fived Shane and called the revamped track (now titled “Personal”) “dope.”
I was initially dismayed when Usher ultimately went with “California,” and Wade seemed blindsided too — there have been a few past Songland guests who’ve opted to record more than one song submission, and it seemed plausible that both Wade and Cam’s bangers would wind up on Confessions II. Perhaps Wade’s original entry’s interpolation of Jamaican artist Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” (which was not mentioned on the show, but was pointed out by several people on Twitter) put him at a disadvantage. But I still think Wade could have a hit with “Personal” on his own, so maybe his defeat was a blessing in disguise. Plus, Cam’s win was a nice full-circle moment for his mentor Dean, since she co-wrote Usher’s hit “Lil Freak” 10 years ago, early in her career. “I love [Usher] so much, because he gave me my opportunity in songwriting,” she gushed.
“When I heard ‘California,’ it was so sparse. And that works in this time, because vibe is every bit of what R&B is. And Ester, her pop sensibility was able to sprinkle the right seasoning over it to liven it up and give it rhythm, which made it a song that kind of gave it an entire body for me,” said Usher.
“This is what music making is about, and this is what creativity is about, right? Every time I've ever done anything, I always say, ‘Let's make history,’” Usher declared at the end of the night, continuing the finale’s lovefest. “I’m so happy I did this show. It’s important to understand how important this art is. This is necessary. Let’s hear it for Songland, man!”
Usher spoke the truth. It has been heartening to see America’s viewers latch onto a gimmick-free, scandal-free program (created and executive-produced by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart!) that gets into the nitty-gritty of behind-the-scenes songwriting — without getting into the usual reality-TV shenanigans like sob stories, feuds, and dramatic editing. Frankly, it was a surprise to me that the series got renewed for a second season last year, but Songland’s Shark Tank-style approach has proven successful, with quite a few of the contestants’ songs becoming top 10 hits on Apple Music, scoring placements in commercials and films, or even in the case of this season’s “Champagne Night” for Lady Antebellum, becoming an official radio single. So I look forward to visiting Songland again in 2021. Until then, check out Usher’s awesome recording of “California,” featuring Tyga, below.
— Songland (@NBCSongland) June 16, 2020
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