Then in 2008, Usher released Here I Stand.
Then in 2008, Usher released Here I Stand. The album sold well its first week, but ended up becoming a commercial failure, especially when compared with his former successes. For those who had a hard time dealing with the candlelight balladry of the platinum selling Stand, they may be ready for a big surprise with Raymond v. Raymond, or not given the project's tumultuous ride.
Originally titled Monster, Usher's sixth studio project was reportedly held back from release in December 2009 after Usher's reps felt that the "unreleased" album, loaded with credible content, needed more buzz before the public got a hold of it. Of course, there was more to the story than official reports. Bootleg copies had surfaced long before Monster's formal release, requiring some new songs to be added or changed. There was also the on-going soap opera saga unfolding from Usher's divorce from Tameka Foster, and the distracting drumbeat that continued to rattle the gossip headlines, when what was needed was positive attention for his critical next project. With the media circus running circles around Usher's juicy relationship details, his label scurried to find any golden moments to help shed some light on the new release and away from the killjoy drama. Their efforts led to appearances at an NBA all-star basketball game, a featured guest spot on FOX's beloved American Idol and other fan fare generating opportunities for Usher's art, until Raymond v. Raymond was at last primed for its big release, however tardy.
With a concept so striking as Raymond v. Raymond (inspired from the 1979 divorce flick Kramer vs. Kramer and perhaps Marvin Gaye's divorce album, Here My Dear), it's unfortunate that Usher deals with the misery from his rocky road marriage by focusing more on reviving his sexy alter ego. You would anticipate from the album title and the spoken words on the opener ("There are three sides to every story. There's one side, the other, and then there's the truth") that a transparent see-through of his marital hiccups, but the album places more focus on the resurrection of the "Ush" swag. But, don't completely fret over a "missed opportunity," at least the swag is back.
Restored to play, Usher pumps out the jams with the Jam & Lewis' produced "Monstar" and returns to the familiar party beats on his nightlife ode "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)" and the reggae-teased "Pro Lover."
There are a couple of trademark Usher slow jams as well. "Foolin' Around," etched with the magical strokes of Confessions' ballads, is nicely executed with its entrancing piano leads and sweetheart melody. Then there's the warm serenades of "There Goes My Baby," which plays like a modern take on MJ's "The Lady of My Life."
Briefly, Usher does belt out his frustrations on "Papers," the divorce track that serves as the return of the bachelor. With lyrics stirring up obvious revelations ("I done damn near lost my mama/I done been through so much drama/I done turned into the man that I never thought I'd be") and toying with grown-folks issues, "Papers" feels so refreshing on radio today and is a pivotal stand-out on the project.
Unfortunately for Usher, modern R&B's overexposed tricks never sit well with his musical brand. These ill-fitting occurrences begin to appear when will.i.am rehashes worn chant choruses while triggering auto-tuned enhancements on "OMG." Then there's the awkwardness of Usher going from motifs of genuine love to super-ego, club playboy, an uneasy dissonance that comes without a blink from the thirty-year old gent. More often than anticipated, Mr. Raymond journeys back to his player days on the electro-decorated "So Many Girls" and the exotic trances of "Lil' Freak;" the latter un-ironically using a familiar sample from Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City." The disquieting moments continues when listeners witness T.I. and Ludacris steal the show from Usher's grips with their cameo appearances on "Guilty" and "She Don't Know," respectively.
Seemingly, Usher's only major step forward on his still-evolving pop style is the RedOne produced "More;" whose dance-pop fierceness screams crossover sensation. It's good to have the good ol' (but youthful) Usher back. He feels a bit less burdened and more chipper, even if he's a bit vexed when belting out his goodbyes on "Papers."
If this album is any indication, Usher the R&B singer is far from ready to settle down to raise a traditional family. Raymond v. Raymond is an album loaded with catchy urban R&B hooks, but is still weighed down with too-many-familiar, hyper-sexualized formulas, planting him a step below the horny vices of The-Dream or Trey Songz. Word to the wise: be careful, Mr. Raymond. Being a bachelor has its pleasures and its share of crowning moments in the club, but being a trend follower in today's modern R&B world will always leave you standing on the wall. Modestly Recommended.
J. Matthew Cobb