Sometimes, it just all goes right. You’re lucky to get five songs in five years that match songwriting, production and performance on as high a level as you get with “Climax,” the lead single off Looking 4 Myself and the #1 R&B track in the country for the last seven weeks. The thing is a marvel of songwriting structure, with choruses that sound like verses, verses that sound like bridges, and instrumental breakdowns that sound like, well, climaxes, every section feeding into the next at impercepitble transition points, like an M.C. Escher painting. Even the title is deceptively brilliant, meaning the exact opposite of it what it first seems to imply. It took four people to compose “Climax,” and it seems like it should have taken at least twice that many.
Meanwhile, producer Diplo (who also co-wrote) presses all the right buttons, figuratively and literally. The Geiger-counter tick of the rhythm track combines with the wobbly, constantly crescendoing synths to create a beat that, while lush and gorgeous, is also almost unbearably tense and combustible, like (and somehow we doubt this is a coincidence) a love story on the brink of collapse. The song’s real audio signature comes from its myriad sound effects (breathy noises, synth squelches, zipper sounds), each deployed with surgical precision and timing, like a Funkmaster Flex bomb-drop. (Sort of.)
As much of a tour de force as it is for Diplo, though, he’s matched every stop of the way by Usher. He’s never before allowed himself to sound as vulnerable and frail as he does with his falsetto here, crying tears with every line, on some real Smokey Robinson shit. But vulnerable and frail are not meant to imply weak—the power of his falsetto is still tremendous, and if there was any doubt he could still bring it in his God-given register, he burns the goddamn house down on the song’s final verse (if you want to call it a verse): “I just need you one more time / I CAN’T GET WHAT WE HAD OUT MY MIIIIND!!!!” It was never going to be a “Yeah!” or “OMG”-sized crossover, but this is the one that’s still gonna make the ladies scream on the Usher world tours ten years from now.
It’s not often that nearly 20 years into a fantastically successful career in popular music that an artist releases his masterpiece. But here we are in 2012 with “Climax,” Usher’s best song yet.