Usher’s ‘Climax’: A Break Up Song For Relationships That End Sooner Than We Want
Unless you have been living under a rock or have some sort of bias against any music that was released in 2012, you’ve probably heard Usher’s “Climax.” The song is one of the single’s from Usher’s brand new project, Looking 4 Myself, which came out yesterday. Most critics who have written about the album say “Climax” is the best song on what is arguably Usher’s best album since Confessions (even though can I just say, Here I Stand is super slept-on? But I digress). For my money, “Climax” is the best R&B song of the year, and it’s not even a contest.
To support my opinion, I can get into some music critic mumbo-jumbo about Diplo’s incredible production on “Climax” or Usher’s impeccable use of falsetto and range, but why describe the obvious? If we like the song, those reasons are very clear to us. “Climax” sounds excellent, but how so? We hear there is something special, but what is that special quality that makes “Climax” stand out?
The other obvious question: There’s a lot of good music that comes out every day, so why the hell would I take the time to devote today’s post to just one song?
Allow me to explain.
I’ve always said it was a woman who created the blues.
I don’t base this on any historical fact, it is more a theory. Man may have been the first to play the blues, but it was his broken heart over a woman that brought those notes out of him.
For as long as their has been R&B their have been songs about love, both lost and found. Our favorite love songs become such not just because they’re enjoyable to hear, but because they get down into what the old folks call, the nitty-gritty. It’s more than the notes they sing or the instrumental supporting them, it’s the way the singer is singing the song. You can hear it in their voice, they’ve been through what they’re singing about. It’s not just the lyrics, it’s the sound of their voice singing those words that makes us say, “Wow, they’ve been through this.”
An opera singer friend of mine says there’s a classical music term to describe such a feat: Word painting — the act of singing that matches or describes what you’re singing about.
“Climax” is a textbook example of what happens when a singer gets their Picasso on. Here, Usher is painting us the most detailed pictures of a love affair that has come to its end. That’s not what this song is about, not entirely. This heartbreak he sings about is specifically talking about a kind of heartbreak we’ve all felt; the kind that burned bright and dimmed far sooner than we expected. “Climax” isn’t about those relationships we’re in for years only to see it all end. I would go so far as to say “Climax” isn’t even a song about a relationship that lasted one year. What Usher is singing about is a relationship that lasted months, and yes, maybe even just weeks.
Most of us know such a feeling, especially folks under 30 or people at the age who are coming of age. We can’t say we know what it’s like to be in a relationship that lasted years, but we know what it’s like to be in love with someone for a short while, and we know what it feels like to lose it so suddenly. But no one really wants to hear us talk about those people. They say what we’re feeling isn’t as severe as we’re making it out to be, and they qualify their claims by pointing out how long the relationship lasted.
“It was only six months,” they say.
“It was only a season,” someone will tell you. “Try losing a love you had for a year or two years or…”
Not only are such statements insensitive, they’re beside the point. What does the length of time have to do with what we feel?
On “Climax” Usher shows how the amount of time two people have been together does not matter so much as the quality of time they spent together. The throws of love are usually at their height during its beginning stages. When things start between two people, all time with them feels insufficient, fleeting. When Usher sings the very first line of the chorus — “Going nowhere fast, we’ve reached our climax” — he sings it slow on purpose, so as to make it clear, the relationship he was in was only built for one speed. It was like driving a race car, and eventually all race cars reach a finish line.
That is what happens to a lot of our great love affairs. We reach a finish line, and then we stop. We learn after the fact that it’s not so much about maintaining the speed as it is knowing how to slow down together.
The real magic in “Climax” is captured in Usher’s use of dynamics. The swells in Usher’s voice pair perfectly with the swells in Diplo’s production. It’s obvious how misleading the title can be before we hear the song, but when we do, we know exactly why this song was given this name. In love, we’re always in pursuit of a climax, and you can take that the way you want it because literally or figuratively it applies. As we build and build and build towards that emotional and physical pinnacle, we want the whole journey to last forever, even as we know there is a destination.
On both verses, Usher’s voice begins calm, confident, but as he gets closer and closer to the song’s chorus, you can hear the frustration mount. On the first verse he’s confused, singing about how he’s fallen “somehow” and wondering where she is. The second verse Usher begins to wake up, singing, “I gave my best, it wasn’t enough” and realizing they “made a mess of what used to be love.”
These two verses prepare us for the bridge. The instrumental break that occurs right before the bridge is symbolic, it’s Usher’s moment to think about everything he’s sung about in the first two verses. Then the bridge comes and that’s when he pours out all his frustrations.
Usher now knows all he and this woman were ever built for was one speed, one gear. Usher sings, “You said it’s better if we, love each other separately.” that’s the point where his frustration takes over, no longer singing to himself, now singing to her. He needs her “one more time” and he can’t get what he had out of his mind, he sings. He even gets down on his knees, but he knows not to stay on them too long, because then, he’s right back at the chorus “going nowhere fast.” There’s nothing he can do and he knows it.
Not all love is meant to stand the test of time, some of it is meant to come and go swiftly. That doesn’t make it any less real when it existed or any less painful when it goes away. “Climax” embodies that sentiment perfectly, showing how everyone is guilty of falling for the thing for which we all fall: the momentum towards love and the difficult process we endure when we realize that this great love couldn’t last longer.
Listen to “Climax” by Usher