Usher always struck me as a wannabe Michael Jackson without the same skills. That’s why 8701 is a complete surprise.

Usher has grown into the adult content of his songs, which benefit from great production. 8701 is a state-of-the-art contemporary R&B album with only mild hip-hop influence.  Not hearing a guest rapper or singer on every track is actually kinda cool.

U Remind Me is a bouncy, summery track produced by the legendary Jam & Lewis despite a childish lyric. Jam & Lewis bring their A game to Twork It Out, a midtempo track that recalls early 80s Shalamar.  One of my favorite cuts on 8701, Usher also references Marvin Gaye’s You Sure Love To Ball at the end of the song.  Usher’s best vocal is on Can U Help Me, the third track Jam & Lewis produce.  Usher kills the end of the bridge, making listeners forget that this sounds an awfully lot like Tender Love by The Force MDs and New Edition’s Helplessly in Love.

The Neptunes also produce some tracks, notably I Don’t Know, featuring an unnecessary Puffy cameo but typical upbeat Neptunes production values.  This is still a good party record and I like Kelis’ “la, la, la”‘s after the chorus.  The Neptunes also produce U Don’t Have To Call, another party track where Usher seems to be having a good time and someone needs to unhook the Neptunes from that annoying keyboard.

The entire release is made by U Got It Bad, Jermaine Dupri’s best production work, possibly EVER.  This great song has a cool guitar solo in the bridge.  Usher continues his habit of referencing classic songs by quoting both Maxwell’s Fortunate and Prince’s Adore on this track.  Dupri also helmed the worst track, I Can’t Let You Go, a rock cut that costs Jermaine his cool points, mostly because he shouts straight through the song to create the only truly skip-worthy track.

8701 really impresses me.   I didn’t think much of Usher’s work before this release and actually thought he was a tad overrated and cocky.  His singing and material has greatly improved with the help of some great songwriting and producing.  8701 will appeal to kids and adults alike and is highly recommended.

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