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Usher, “Raymond v Raymond” (LaFace)
When the R&B world last heard from Usher Raymond IV, on “Here I Stand” in 2008, the former teen prodigy from Atlanta finally had become a man. Leaving behind the solipsistic and ungentlemanly kiss-and-tell aspects of “Confessions” (2004), which chronicled his split with Rozonda “Chili” Thomas of TLC, he moved on to sing about the much more mature topics of struggling to be a good father and a faithful husband. But “Here I Stand” was a commercial disaster compared to “Confessions,” and the 31-year-old singer has since divorced the spouse so lovingly portrayed on the last disc, his former stylist Tameka Foster. For studio album number six, he revels more than ever in hollow player posing and empty sexual braggadocio, and delivers the sleepiest and least inspired album of his career.
Incredible art can be made from the soul-wrenching tragedy of divorce–witness Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear”–but the Usher songs that most directly address his recent drama, the vapid “Papers,” “Foolin’ Around” and “Guilty,” don’t even rise to the level of reality TV melodrama. Even worse are the songs where he attempts to reassert how irresistibly desirable he remains, including the annoyingly inane “So Many Girls” and the obnoxious “Lil Freak,” an account of attempting to arrange a mnage a trois with two lesbians that would embarrass R. Kelly, if only for the fact that it unjustifiably lifts the synthesizer hook from Stevie Wonder’s immortal social critique, “Living for the City.”
Add to these sins the usual pointless cameos (from a sleep-rapping Ludacris to the ubiquitous Will.I.Am), a complete waste of production talent (including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Polow da Don) and most of all a thorough lack of dancefloor-worthy grooves, and you have a dud that leaves you struggling to remember why Usher ever appealed, to say nothing of once appearing to be the post-Kelly R&B savior that R&B still desperately needs.