Usher is a great singer. This shouldn’t need saying, but it’s important to understand. When R&B purists criticize Frank Ocean’s voice, they’re rightly pointing out an instrument that’s more limited than one like Usher’s. Of course, Ocean has other strengths, and Usher wisely turned to Diplo, Nico Muhly, Redd Stylez, and Ariel Rechtshaid to help shape “Climax” into, as SPIN’s Rob Harvilla put it, “an all-timer.” It’s in part his voice that allows him to get away with such techno-flickering experimentation while still scoring a #1 on the R&B chart.
Dirty Projectors are a band that was on the vanguard of the recent convergence between the indie world and R&B that apotheosized with Usher’s “Climax” and Ocean’s channel ORANGE. “Losing You” singer (and Beyoncé sister) Solange’s cover of the New York group’s Bitte Orca standout “Stillness Is the Move” was a signal moment. Dirty Projectors put out a great album and EP last year, continuing to put heady lyrics and complex melodies over disarmingly sinuous rhythms. It’s only natural they would eventually cover “Climax.”
That cover came in a recent session for Australia’s Triple J Radio, which last year hosted Chairlift and then-Das Racist rapper Kool A.D. for a memorable cover of Beyoncé’s “Party.” Despite an opening nod to “Niggas in Paris,” that clip worked a bit like British producer Kingdom’s “Nicki-Centric” edit of Kanye Wests “Monster,” liberating a good song for those who shied away from producer West’s “swagu” talk. It also showed Caroline Polacheck’s synth-pop group could loosen up more than song titles like “Amanaemonesia” might wrongly lead you to believe.
Dirty Projectors’ sparse take on “Climax,” setting four vocalists over nothing but a beatmaking gadget, is fascinating because it brings up all of those connections. And we can’t exactly impugn Dirty Projectors’ vocalists: Amber Coffman here, in particular, sounds stellar, the harmonies are divine, and as a group they’ve all been responsible for some thrilling records. But unfortunately this meeting between Dirty Projectors and Usher is less than the sum of its parts.
It might be that the slow pace demands the full production, not just Usher’s passionate vocal but also Muhly’s frozen strings. And Dirty Projects frontman David Longstreth clearly recognizes the key moment of the song, ramping up his intensity when it’s time to ask, “Why do I care at all?” He and Coffman split lead vocal duties, and while she’s the standout, his vocals don’t sound all that different than they do on his album. He is a good singer; that can’t be the problem.
Whatever it is, something’s missing here that makes a track that originally sizzled with physicality sound instead like a cerebral exercise and, indeed, a bit of a dirge. At one point Longstreth glances down at his phone as if he’s reading his lyrics, so it might just be that the song wasn’t fully a part of him yet. R&B clearly is, despite the DJ’s surprise at the band’s choice of a cover. But for now, rightfully, Usher is still the one whose “Climax” most satisfyingly withholds satisfaction. There’s no shame in being in second place to an all-timer.