14 Ways Usher and Diplo’s Slow Jam ‘Climax’ Keeps Peaking
R&B star's collaboration with the Major Lazer member is a tour de force of rising tension without release
Diplo unveiled his collaboration with Usher yesterday, which, in case you’d already forgotten, was Valentine’s Day. For those too bitter about the high-pressure holiday to enjoy a silky digital slow jam, well, there’s a playlist for that. On behalf of the rest of a grateful and well-satisfied world: Thank you, Wesley Pentz and Usher Raymond.
As with any relationship, though, the true test of the music the R&B superstar and Major Lazer producer have made together will be how well it plays every other day of the year. In that case, let no man accuse “Climax” of peaking too soon. Diplo has called the song, which he co-wrote with South Florida singer-songwriter Redd Stylez and Ariel Rechtshaid (bassist for L.A. band Foreign Born and producer for Cass McCombs, among others), “seriously the best record I’ve been part of.”
Of course, Diplo also produced last year’s “Look at Me Now,” the Grammy-winning smash with Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes. He has also worked on some pretty awesome tracks with M.I.A., Santigold, Robyn, and many more. Here are 14 reasons why this particular moment builds and builds so memorably.
1. It’s “radiohead quietstorm.” That’s how Diplo described the track in a tweet this morning. As anyone who ever fast-forwarded too slowly through TV commercials know, the man is a canny self-promoter. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. An atmospheric, falsetto-driven track that confidently melds electronic and organic elements, including digitally tweaked vocals, yet is pillowy and explicitly sexual rather than eerie and cerebral: Radiohead-style Quiet Storm sounds about right.
2. It’s Usher getting back to what he does best. The superstar R&B hoofer was heartbroken last time we heard him, on David Guetta’s 2011 hit “Without You.” But despite the sensitive tone, that song, like so much of Usher’s 2010 Raymond vs. Raymond, was something you’d more likely release on New Year’s Eve than on Valentine’s Day. Don’t get us wrong: Dancefloor hits like “Yeah” and “Love in This Club” sound fantastic in the proper setting. But it’s great to hear him return to the sumptuously constructed baby-making music of songs like “Nice & Slow” and “Burn.” That’s where his vocal finesse really shows.
3. It’s Usher singing in falsetto. We mentioned the falsetto, right? Smokey Robinson’s lofty croon set the standard for Quiet Storm on the song that gave the style its name. Usher is less likely to go all the way up there than, say, Justin Timberlake or Trey Songz, but when he did previously, as on the hook to “There Goes My Baby,” he used the falsetto to great effect. “Climax” might be Usher’s supreme falsetto moment, as he keeps fluttering to new heights like the lyrical subject matter of the song.
4. It’s not actually a love song. Speaking of the lyrical subject matter, this is one of those songs that might work just as well if Usher — or, inevitably, some douchebag in the dorm — stripped it down to just acoustic guitar. It’s as vividly communicative as it is decoratively beautiful. He’s singing not only about how much he wants this person, but about how they’re not going to be together; they’re in limbo. Opening lines: “We’re going nowhere fast.” This can, of course, have a couple of meanings. Good thing Usher went back for just one more fling.
5. Where’s the drop? Diplo is ever conscious of trends, and he teases us with the sort of wubba-wubba subwoofer noises that have become inescapable in the past year or so of pop radio. But he never actually gives in with the full dubstep drop. We haven’t actually reached the climax. And that’s a great thing, because as much fun as, say, Skrillex’s “Cinema” remix can be, this song demands a more delicate touch.
6. Nico Muhly’s strings are face-melting. Muhly, a classical composer who has done arrangements and orchestration for everyone from Grizzly Bear and Antony to Bonnie Prince Billy, has less of a track record when it comes to pop radio, but that’s exactly why he’s so perfect for this track. We’re no orchestral experts, but the way he employs the strings so subtly, rather than the more common trick of slathering on the melodrama and false grandeur, should be required listening for aspiring Top 40 producers. The orchestration is majestic, but never bombastic.
7. The percussion keeps cutting out. After each verse or so, the snapping, spacious electronic rhythm track subsides a bit. The moment is right for the track to climax somehow, but of course, Usher and Diplo keep right on pushing ahead. That’s part of what helps the track keep reaching new peaks.
8. Just look at the SoundCloud. “Climax” is perfectly suited to the SoundCloud treatment. When you’re watching the waveform visualization as you listen to the stream, you can see the way the song keeps swelling to one big wave after another, without ever really reaching a single, song-stopping crescendo. This track is a tour de force of pacing and dynamics, giving listeners more and more, but then always easing up just enough to keep us begging for one more verse.
9. Okay, here’s where we admit we know what “climax” means. Speaking of how vividly yet simply the lyrics depict this relationship, the wordplay involved in the title phrase is just classic pop songcraft. This couple obviously knows how to, uh, climax together, but is that the pinnacle of their relationship? Can there be anything else? “Climax” is too pleasurable to want to find out. We don’t want to see these two characters in their flannel pajamas picking out nose hair, anyway.
10. We mentioned Muhly’s strings, but what about those rippling synths? Repeating simple chords, fading out as appropriate, but always maintaining enough variety and warmth to give the rest of the song’s elements ample space to continue their torrid ascent.
11. The piano that comes in around the 3-minute mark is awesome. The closest thing to a climax on “Climax” is, fittingly, around the bridge, when the track gets as quiet as it ever has before becoming as lush as it ever gets. It’s here that Muhly’s orchestration, and Usher’s emotional singing — everyone’s everything, really — truly shines. “I just need you one more time,” Usher pleads, and a few scattered piano notes in the right headphone are just the kind of gorgeous detail that make returning to a song like this over and over so worthwhile.
12. We’re going nowhere. As Yusuf Islam once said, “You’re going to wind up where you started from.” The final verse, rather than providing a release, ends up with all the tension of the opening, and although now Usher’s increasingly flighty voice appears to be indicating the couple will be going their separate ways, we know better than to believe him. Someone can always just hit repeat. Lack of commitment hasn’t sounded so good since “U Make Me Wanna…” — but even that song involved starting a new “relationship.”
13. It doesn’t have any guest rappers. Look, we’re sure we’ll love the inevitable remixes of this as much as anybody. Quiet Storm is a crucial part of hip-hop’s DNA, and rappers are sure to jump all over this. But given how tempting it must have been to try to corral that high-profile guest MC to really push the track to the top of the charts, the absence of one here is just one more lesson in restraint from Usher, Diplo, and their collaborators. (To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, “You have to listen to the notes they’re not playing.”)
14. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Grammy Awards. See ya next year, Bonny Bear! Be nice to that sweet-seeming Paul McCartney fella! Kisses on the bottom.