Here Usher stands…
…and here I sit, with absolutely no idea how to start this review. Well, we can skip the potentially boring and long-winded intro and say you’d have to have been living under a rock for the past decade or so to not know who Usher Raymond is. Starting out at the tail end of the teen-R&B wave that gave us Brandy, Monica and Tevin Campbell, Usher didn’t really stand out from the pack personality-wise, but boy, did he know how to make the hits. A first album back in ’94 was a relative dud, but 1997’s My Way and 2001’s 8701 sold like hotcakes and established the handsome and talented young man as the prince of R&B. He was charismatic and fresh-scrubbed enough to appeal to soccer moms while still maintaining something of an edge to satisfy the young girls’ bad boy fantasies.
Usher hit the motherlode with 2004’s Confessions. That album blew up like a neutron bomb and unquestionably made Usher the King of Pop. A breakup with TLC’s Chilli and rumors of infidelity dirtied up his image enough for him to shake the teen-star image, and 4 #1 singles and 10 million U.S. sales later, Usher found himself standing atop a crowded field of imitators…or at least leading the current pack of Michael Jackson tribute acts that includes Justin Timberlake (Usher’s chief rival, even if he’s sold half the records), Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, Trey Songz and the list goes on and on…
Four years is a long time, and in 2008, Usher is now officially a grown man on the cusp of 30. He’s also a married dad who lost his own father at the beginning of this year. Great artists make music that reflects where they are in their lives at the present time, and while I’ll stop short of calling Usher a great artist, it’s safe to say that Here I Stand, the singer’s fifth studio album, is an accurate representation of the singer’s life. There’s a lot to be said for the concept album, and Stand’s tracks suggest a loose narrative-following the life of a guy who decides to hang up his player card and reprioritize. There’s a more mature edge to the lyrics as well as a newfound confidence in Usher’s singing. He’s a very good vocalist, with a full, expressive voice- a solid B if you’d consider someone like Anthony Hamilton as an A+ in today’s crop of soul singers. The production stops just short of being overtly trendy, although it certainly fits in with the synth-heavy, almost retro-80s sound that’s permeating current R&B right now. Actually, one thing that’s notable about this album is that it sounds fairly cohesive despite being overseen by a literal laundry list of producers.
That said, I feel like something is missing here, and I’m not sure what it is. The album definitely runs a little long-with 15 full tracks, 2 interludes and a bonus cut, it could easily have been trimmed by 3 or 4 songs and still be as good. I also wonder if I’m just a victim of heightened expectations and media spin. Confessions was a solid album, but I’d have trouble calling it a classic. When you really break it down, Here I Stand is maybe a percentage point or two lower in quality, but it’s still as solid as modern R&B gets.
I’ve heard folks giving this album crap for being ballad-heavy, but um…have you listened to Usher’s last two albums? Usher’s work is easily 2-1 in favor of midtempo and slow jams. That said, he delivers on a couple of uptempo cuts. It took me a couple of listens to get into This Ain’t Sex, especially after an underwhelming “SNL” performance of it a couple weeks back, but despite the eye-rolling lyrics (“this ain’t sex/we’re making moments that will outlast the world”), it’s a fun track with a bubbly, early Eighties vibe that might remind some (like my boy GG) of Michael Jackson. Personally, at this point I think Ush owes MJ some money, but that’s for another review.
Something Special is a bit more on the laid-back tip, almost bluesy sounding (one of the few tracks where a guitar and not a synthesizer is the prominent instrument), but it’s the song on the album that best spotlights Usher’s voice and makes you appreciate him as a vocalist. Trading Places finds Usher indulging in his inner freak, asking his lover to be the aggressor in their relationship. I’m not sure that I want the image of Usher throwing out the trash wearing just his girlfriend’s tee-shirt in my head, but it’s definitely an interesting lyric and an engaging song. Musically, there’s a definite Prince influence (down to the electric guitar solo), but I also get sort of an R. Kelly vibe-without the disgusting Child Molester Pee on You glow that Kelly has.
One thing Usher definitely needs to stop doing ASAP is collaborating with rappers, as the guest appearances here range from unnecessary to awful. Young Jeezy is fairly easy to ignore on the hit single Love in This Club and Jay-Z on autopilot is still the best thing (ha!) on the boring midtempo track Best Thing. Unfortunately, we also have to deal with will.i.am completely derailing What’s Your Name (which features an itchy synth line reminiscent of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This”) with a verse that’s borderline gibberish. Fergie’s rapping on “My Humps” sounds like Rakim compared to will.i.am’s emceeing on this track. Still, that’s not worse than Lil’ Wayne’s guest verse on Love in This Club Part II. On this track, which features a fairly beige co-lead vocal by Beyonce, Wayne literally wheezes his rhyme-he sounds like someone who’s just been stabbed in the chest and is gasping for breath. Furthermore, he has the unmitigated gall to rip off a portion of Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Anyplace” for almost half of his rhyme. I hope Janet corners him in a back alley and stabs him in the eye with her nipple shield.
However, there is no T-Pain on this album. For that, we must rejoice.
This album has a decidedly dramatic production sheen. Many of the more personal songs have the build and swell of a movie, one of many reasons I find this album very similar to Mary J. Blige’s current “Growing Pains”. The buzzing synths on Moving Mountains serve to reinforce Usher’s plaintive vocal about a relationship in which he just can’t seem to win. The piano/strings-enhanced His Mistakes is another winner, as is Before I Met You. Even if the songwriting is pedestrian, Usher sings with an honesty and force that sells even the most average lyric.
So, here I sit (well, here I lay at this point…yes, I’m lazy) trying to figure how to accurately summarize this album. By no means is Here I Stand a bad album. There are certainly more memorable parts than there are reasons to hit the “skip” button on your audio player of choice. However, I think I tore off the wrapping on this CD expecting a classic and have come away ever so slightly disappointed. It’s certainly one of the better R&B albums to come out in the first part of 2008, but despite his personal growth, I’m still waiting for Usher to get to the next level musically. What life-changing event will it take to get him there?