Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Song Analysis of "Climax" by Usher


Oh how I love a song that breaks all the rules, and nothing makes me happier than discovering a song that actually gets better the more I listen to it. Usher and producer Diplo created a chart topping record that in a lot of ways, does the opposite of what traditional hit records do. “Climax” does not have a big catchy hook, is not a dance record (for a change), and it does not have a traditional pop music structure - to put it mildly. What it is though, is a hit record that is extremely well made and intricate; full of emotion, synths, dubstep, electro elements, R&B elements, and a grammy worthy vocal performance by Usher.

The stars lined up for these guys when they made this record, I can tell it was a labor of love. It sounds like one of those records that takes a while to perfect, its like you have a vision that's a little out of reach and you work at it until you make it happen as you heard it in your head. I would be surprised if “Climax” was one of those "we made this in 20 minutes" records. I did read that they wrote the lyrics in about an hour and worked on the record for 2 months. As I listened deeper, read the lyrics, and analyzed the structure, I saw the vision. The song is about a relationship that reaches a certain point - a high point, and then there's nowhere else to go. The relationship doesn't go to the next level, it just reaches a climax and then thats the end of it; a love affair that has run its course. The song structure is sort of like that. It rises to a point where you expect it to give a pay off but it doesn’t. It’s a lesson in restraint, like tantric sex I suppose (no orgasms) and it works beautifully. I can’t imagine how tempted they were to just let the chorus be the release for the verses slow but effective build and crescendo. It builds and builds and... stops. Leading up to a hook which is melodic, but decidedly low key. This is advanced song construction right here and I love Usher and Diplo’s musical IQ on this record. Well played fellas. 


The first few times I heard “Climax”, I couldn't tell what the hook was, and where the verses were; those sections are not as defined as they are in normal pop records. On the average pop record, you know when the hook is coming, it’s sorta embedded in our collective ears. We all expect the hook to come after a verse or b-section that builds up to a hook. We usually get a musical warning that the hook is coming in the form of a sweep, drum fill or break, or crescendo. That’s the norm; us listeners subconsciously take comfort in that. It’s interesting how we are so accustomed to these musical arrangements - we need it to be normal. If a verse is longer than 16 bars, we get antsy, bored, and something just doesn't feel right about the song. If its 14 bars or 10 bars, we don't like that either and again it doesn't feel right. It takes a nonconformist to take a chance on a non-traditional arrangement, and a lot of skill to pull it off. Although the verses and hooks in “Climax” are a normal 8 bars each, Usher and Diplo take a different approach to the musical arrangement.

After a few listens, I figured out the structure. It begins with the chorus! It just doesn't really feel like the chorus because it's not big and hooky (is that a word?), it’s just Usher singing "Going nowhere fast we've reached the climax, etc.." and then the 1st verse starts. Usher's begins the verse in a airy natural voice and the song quiets down a bit from the hook. Its pretty normal stuff, standard pop music structure, but then the b-section is a totally different situation.

In the b-section, “Climax” takes a compelling turn. Usher is in full voice now, strings and synth pads enter the song, and the filters on the percussive synth slowly open up. The build is great. This part of the song grows to a climax, but leads us to the hook which finds Usher back in falsetto mode, crooning smoothly. My first few listens to this song led me to believe that the b-section was the hook, because it was the biggest part of the song. Its a reverse structure - big verses, small hooks.

The second verse is similar, but when Usher asks “why do I care, I care - at allllll” the b-section grows to a point even larger than the first. Still leading us back to the low key hook with our boy Ursh doing his falsetto thing. Well done.

The bridge or what my friend from london calls the “middle eight” is when “Climax” reaches its quietest point, leading up to its highest point. Starting with a long crescendo that grows to the most intense point of the song where we hear Usher in full voice singing “You said its better if we, love each other separately..” We’re at the top of the mountain right now, everything's open, strings are flowing, and synths are bright; its a great moment in the song, and it’s well executed.

From this “finale” so to speak, we are treated to the last hook, which is still low key, muted and mellow. After the hook, the song ends, saying “We reached the climax.” To relate it to a relationship, the last hook ends up bringing us back to the intro - we had an amazing journey, but ultimately we didn’t move forward, we went back to the beginning. Relationships can be like that, a cycle of highs and lows, never actually moving in a real direction, never really evolving and eventually reaching a point to where it just “is what it is” - a great experience while you’re on the ride. Then you get off and you’re in the same place you were before. “Climax” never really climaxes; it’s all about the build and the ride, but not the release. That’s the deeper meaning to the arrangement, and it shows us that Usher and Diplo were thinking on a whole different level.

The Mix

This was not a straightforward mix, as this is by no means a straightforward song. When I first played it in the studio, I was surprised at how low the drums were; a little out of the way at times. In the verses the synth is the main instrument, with the drums taking a backseat. The b-section features the drums more, as the programming moves to more of a double time pattern. From a mixer point a view, this is a song that lets you do some of those tricks and delays that you love to do, but usually can’t because the song doesn’t call for it. I can tell that they pulled out their bag of tricks for this one. The production features a percussive synth with a low-pass filter that opens and closes depending on where we are in the song. In the verses, the filter is more closed and muted. During the b-section it opens up more and gets brighter. This constant filter movement adds emotion and depth to the track. The mixer handled the crescendos and decrescendos well, not making them overly abrupt and hard edged. The switch between the open, full vocals on the b-section and the falsetto on the hooks is smooth and doesn’t draw attention to itself. If you think about it, Usher is singing “At all” pretty loud on the second b-section while the hook is a soft falsetto. The switch between those two vocal tones are mixed well. The delays are great, varied and used often but tastefully. They even employed the reverse reverb effect on the bridge. I haven’t heard that effect used this well in a while. I remember doing that effect back in 2 inch 24-track tape days, where you had to record the reverb on a separate track, flip the tape over to get the reverse effect and then play it back re-recording the reversed verb onto another track. It was not an effect you would just try for kicks, because it took so long to put it together. Ahh, the good ole days.


As you can see, I am really enamored by this song. Even more, I appreciate the mindset. I just love it when artists and producers - especially pop artists, set out to do something different and have the ability to pull it off. At this point, Usher doesn’t really have to be innovative, he could just go to David Guetta and make electro hits all day long. The vast majority of records on the radio today; at least here in Los Angeles, have very little originality. “Climax” is not a normal song. In fact, Usher is the only thing normal about it. Truth be told, only a big named artist could get a record like “Climax” on pop radio. I can just imagine the meeting with the A&R guy saying, “Its cool, but the hook needs to be bigger” or “Make the drums knock more”. You gotta love those A&R cats. If this was a song by an unknown singer, it would be one of those indie records that only hipsters would know about and loved. We should all collectively thank ol’ Ursh for expanding the radio playlist a bit. Maybe this will inspire more innovation.

Climax is currently number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and peaked at 17 on the Hot 100.