I Confess…Usher Raymond Is One Talented Man

It must be nice being Usher Raymond. He’s 25, handsome, talented and seemingly has the world at his feet. He’s got the #1 single in the country, his album’s expected to do gangbusters. two Grammy awards and even a prism-style doppelganger in the form of one Justin Timberlake.

Yeah, the haters have a point. Justin’s makeover from boy-band leader to respected pop/R&B artist has the footprints of Usher’s 8701 all over it. Their voices are fairly similar, they both worked with The Neptunes, and both obviously worship at the altar of Michael Jackson. Usher’s fifth album, Confessions,  Usher shows his MJ fetish, but he juxtaposes Off The Wall-era Micheal’s boyish charm with adult sensuality thanks to an all-star team of producers and writers.

Folks who like their R&B and hip-hop primarily separate will be happy to know that the hip-hoppery here is minimal.  The only cut with any rhyming on Confessions is first single “Yeah!” This is a pure party track, featuring a charmingly rude rhyme from Ludacris and the hilariously annoying shouting of “King Of Crunk” Lil’ Jon, the rapping Muppet.

The cool thing about Yeah! is how it makes you get up and shake your behind while seemingly having no bass although there’s a bass player credited on the song. Usher rides the beat like a bronco, imitating MJ’s talent for percussive singing. You’ll find that bass and more on Take Your Hand. Produced by Rich Harrison of  Crazy In Love  fame, this track is pure bottom with Usher alternately grunting and cooing.

Caught Up, another up-tempo track,  rides a chanting vocal, a military beat and some horns. Usher definitely handles uptempo tracks, unlike most of his contemporaries, who seem to be fast song-deficient.

Jermaine Dupri and Usher have developed good chemistry, which has been exhibited on several of Usher’s biggest hits, like You Make Me Wanna… and U Got It Bad.  Dupri’s songs explore the album’s confessional theme. The title track (actually Part II since Part I is the interlude preceding it is a deceptively uptempo track on which Usher apologizes to his lady for getting another girl pregnant.

If anyone can charm the sense out of a woman for that tough an act, that person is likely Usher.  Burn is the flipside of  U Got It Bad. Where on “Bad”, Usher explores the helpless joy of falling in love on Bad, while Burn tells what what happens when the flame is flickering out, or as Usher puts it “when the party just ain’t poppin’ like it used to.”  Both have a Bic-waving hands in the air vibe.

There’s much more.  Truth Hurts rides a finger-snappin’ summery groove straight to the bank of “are you cheatin’ on me?”  This is the best  of several tracks provided by the always reliable Jam & Lewis, in association with former child-prodigy turned never-was Bobby Ross Avila.  Confessions would be incomplete without an excursion into the sped-up soul sample, and Usher kills it on the amazing Throwback, where producer Just Blaze samples a healthy does of You’re Gonna Need Me, an old Dionne Warwick song.  The sample gives the song sort of a reflective, haunting quality, made even more so by Usher’s increasingly strong vocal abilities.

For the bedroom, JD pulls out the old Linn drum machine and takes it back to the Prince “International Lover” days with the pulsating synth groove of  Do It To MeConfessions has a supreme baby-making jam too in Can You Handle It, recalling the best of post-Luther slow jams while sporting a sensually erotic edge that Luther never quite attained.  Usher skillfully glides up and down his register on this hushed, finger snappin’ ballad produced by the criminally underrated Robin Thicke (What are you waiting for? Buy his damn album!!!). It’s definitely one of those “light a candle and lay in front of the fireplace”-type jams.

Given the glut of production/writing teams on Confessions,  the album’s cohesiveness is a wonder, an accomplishment that is Usher’s.  The man has evolved into quite a singer.  Each new album has been better than the previous one.  Usher improves on the high-water mark set by 8701, more impressive since he sidestepped surefire success by not using a Neptunes track, a superstar duet or more than one track with a guest rapper.  Usher also widely avoids the typical R&B bling/pimpin’ lyrics on most of the tracks.  When he finally succumbs to obvious cliche-the electric guitar-spiced Bad Girl he turns it into a charmingly playful song rather than sounding like every other R&B record.

A couple of Confession’s tracks blend anonymously into the mix, but the album’s only massive misstep is an overabundance of interludes. Every other song doesn’t need a prelude;  just give us the music, dammit!

Five albums in, and Usher keeps improving. Confessions is certainly one of the better R&B albums of 2004. Let’s see if Justin can top this with his next solo album.