Thursday, May 22, 2008

Daily DIC: Usher's "Here I Stand" Album Review

"i've given you every bit of the man i am/i know at times it wasn't pretty/but it was all i had..."Usher

I’m speaking to a whole generation of women who have come of age on and with the relentless entertainer Usher. Those of us who’ve been listening since the beginning could not believe Confessions, his 2004 diamond-selling album, which played like the most amazing night of love-making after years of “nice and slow” foreplay. From the “damn I messed up again” to the “just trust me because you’re so sexy” themes (real BICs understand how that makes no sense and all the sense in the world simultaneously), the feel of Confessions was like the freshness and dripping sensuality of a new relationship with that man you barely know but just can’t get enough of. The feel of Here I Stand (HIS), Usher’s first new studio album since ‘04, feels aptly like where you are in that same relationship four years later. As usual, he tackles the ballads, the baby-makers and, of course, the uptempos that show off his mind-blowing mastery of the eight-step. His voice is as velvety as ever, his tone is as clean as ever, but if Confessions was a sexscapade with your new-found love jones, Here I Stand is date night with babydaddy.

To those who say it’s unfair to compare Ursh’s latest LP to the exceptional success of Confessions, part of me is inclined to agree. However, Confessions is such the flawless pinnacle of his career that it’s difficult to speak of Usher and not constantly reference it. All the work he did before Confessions was pretty much made obsolete by the precision of the album, and it’s fair to say that all the work after it could be affected as well. And it’s hard to listen to another new album without reminiscing about when Confessions itself was brand new.

All that said, it’s only fair to allow a performer as talented as Usher space to grow as a human being, something he’s most certainly doing. On a personal note, the past four years have married him off and seen the birth of his first child. Usher is more of a man than ever, and who could begrudge him the happiness that everyone deserves? But his growth, while well-deserved, tends to make HIS rest too heavily in the monotony of monogamy.

The intro track to the album begins the sentimental trip into the world of HIS, but segues into the #1 single (and banger) “Love In the Club”, which definitely starts the album with a highly-anticipated ass smack. But the lip-biting debauchery of finding a corner in the nightspot quickly turns into falling asleep naked watching reruns of Martin when we’re introduced to what is supposed to be the grown and sexiness of “This Ain’t Sex”, a record in which the lyrics are modern but the arrangement veers towards the adult contemporary that even the soul and modernism of Usher’s vocals have a hard time overwhelming. “Moving Mountains” is a melodic and welcome taste of more traditional Ursh, and “Trading Places” is a soothing lullaby with a heavy bottom that definitely gets you out of your clothes, but a quick mental comparison to the masturbatory melodies of yesteryear (think “Can U Handle It”, “Do It To Me” and “That’s What It’s Made For”) makes these new tunes feel like premature ejaculation. To add insult to injury, an uptempo “What’s Your Name” solidifies the album’s ‘more sugar, less spice’ cornerstone and makes you feel like your man left you hot and bothered running to the drugstore and came back too tired to put it down.

Fortunately, HIS's track arrangement is as well-structured as possible, dividing the album into two distinct parts. Although by and large the beginning of the album lacks the seamlessness of his previous work, there are plenty of glimpses at vintage Usher in the second half. If the beginning is standard love-making with your man, the second half of the album is a reminder of why, even if the sex can sometimes get predictable, you still only want to be with him. “Prayer For You”, an ode to Usher’s 23 chromosomes, Usher Raymond V, is a stark reminder that a sex symbol is now somebody’s father. Sweet, yes. Startling and possibly ill-placed, yes and yes.

It’s clear that Usher is not content to spend an entire career boosting sales in the prophylactic industry; he really wants to be an artist. The best thing about being in a long-term relationship is the comfort and love it breeds, and this is not lost on the new Ursh. “Something Special” is so sweet and old-school it literally makes you smile; the lyrics play back like a love letter and overall, the record is a reminder of the fact that although many others try, nobody has more of an updated MJ vibe than Usher. “Best Thing” smartly features Jay-Z, who always seems to add a little poignancy to the situation. Here is no exception as he brings in the track with the lyrics “I mean, even grass grow babe/seeds become plants/boys become men”, and Ursh chimes in later with “no more miscellaneous chicks…actin like a jerk/woman I been to church” before adding the obligatory lyrical apology for running the streets and actin a fool for so long. And for all the sexy charms of Usher’s anthology of work up to now, “Before I Met You” is exactly what she’s been waiting to hear, exactly the way she's been waiting to hear it.

It’s not all guns and roses, though. “Love You Gently” falls flat, like your dude trying to get some after hesitating over the answer to whether or not you gained weight; “What’s A Man To Do” goes a step further, veering dangerously into album filler territory, painfully foreign terrain for Usher. But “Appetite” jams fluidly and does a hook like only Usher can as he reveals the constant struggle to maintain the strength of the relationship with his true love while there are still so many women tossing draws his way (for the record, he keeps his honor…at least lyrically). And “His Mistakes” reveal a seriously grown man and his seriously grown perspective on love, and the introspection and compromise necessary when you really care about someone.

The final track, “Will Work For Love”, is the kind off allegory Usher has done well in the past (“Superstar”, Confessions; “Icebox (Remix)”, and even this album’s own “Appetite”), but the cut’s overwhelming sentimentality completes the album much like it started—slightly sappy and disappointingly corny. But before he finishes you off on this note, there’s “Lifetime”, which is a very grown-up and very sexy highlight of everything Usher does best from arrangement to the range of the vocals’ shadowy rasp to the lyrics (“don’t think I’m talking crazy/yo mama and my mama want some grandbabies tonight…”). But the title track, “Here I Stand”, is Usher’s best offering. When you hear the kissy melody over the beautiful, tender instrumentation that fuels old-school classic R&B, you realize this new version of Usher just might grow on you. It’s quite the transition from where he was, but where he’s going may not be so bad after all.

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