Review Summary: With no more Confessions left, former R&B megastar has trouble topping former glories.
Usher Raymond has been doing the rounds longer than you think. Since the early nineties, he’s been working with some of the bigger names in the “urban” music community of America, frequently charting the Top 100 but never achieving the superstar success of some of his contemporaries. It was only when the crunk-pop sensation of “Yeah!” exploded into the mainstream conscience that Usher moved from R&B wunderkind to multi-millionaire superstar. The album that followed the release of “Yeah!”, 2004’s Confessions
, proved to be a worldwide success, and his best work to date (even he
thought it was so good, he included it in his ten favourite albums in an interview with Rolling Stone). Usher Raymond was on top of the world; financially and commercially. The question that has to be put here, is how the hell do you follow that up, let alone attempt to top it? Raymond is now older and wiser, having witnessed the sacrament of marriage (to long-time girlfriend Taneka Foster), the creation of a life (his son, Usher Raymond V) and the loss of another (the death of his father, Usher Raymond III, in January). Why on earth he decided to make an album dominated by baby-making slow jams to reflect this is anyone’s guess. Here I Stand
often has trouble finding its feet, creating a largely hit-and-miss affair.
Having said that, the album still features some of Usher’s best work yet. Timbaland, aka He Who Can Do No Wrong, is at the helm of “Moving Mountains”. On first listen, one may mistake this as the generic ballad where the singer inexplicably sings shirtless in the rain. Thanks to a brilliant performance by Raymond (backed exceptionally well by Kuk Harrell’s vocal production and vocoder harmonies) and Timbaland’s insistent, echo-ing beat, this idea is quickly eliminated and we are presented with a defining milestone of Usher’s career. In a surprise turn, the usually lacklustre Jermaine Dupri does an outstanding job with the polished, soulful swing of “Something Special” and the funky “Best Thing”. The multilayered harmonies and Motown guitar of “Something Special” compete considerably well with Usher’s faultless crooning. The song is a homage to the music Usher has loved all his life- classic soul by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Reverend Al Green (both of whom are namechecked in “Love You Gently”), Sam Cooke et al. It is a significant departure from the rest of the album’s overall sound, and succeeds almost solely because of this. “Best Thing” features a couple of verses from the one and only Jay-Z, who doesn’t so much steal the show as crash Usher’s party. The second verse from Jay-Z feels like him interrupting Usher and showing him how to properly use such a cruising, Californian beat to its full effect. The verses aren’t even amongst the best of Jay-Z’s guest spots, but it is his inclusion that gives the song the adrenalin it needs.
Other songs, unfortunately, aren’t as lucky. “What’s Your Name” features terrible production and an atrocious cameo from Will.i.am, choosing to indistinctly mumble and drawl through his spots for some bizarre reason. Beyonce Knowles shines, as she almost always does, on her guest spot of “Love In This Club, Part II”; however, her counterpart, the consistently overrated Lil Wayne, fails to hold up his end of the deal (much like his turn on Kanye’s “Barry Bonds”) with a raspy, lethargic ramble over the even lazier beat (producer Polow la Don has already been sussed out for using presets from GarageBand in the single’s production). And whilst it is lovely that Usher has settled down to start a family, was it really a necessity to create two of his most boring and soppy ballads (“Before I Met You” and the title track) to celebrate it? Thankfully, Usher’s brief ode to his new-born, “Prayer for You”, has much more sentimentality, with dreamy keys, breathy harmonies and heartfelt lyrics that ring familiarity with other songs for songwriters’ children, whilst still maintaining sincerity.
Where Here I Stand
falters is its general lack of highlights- the album sags significantly in its second half; and with an overall count of a whopping twenty-three
producers over seventeen songs (twenty-one if purchased through iTunes), the album struggles with a grasp on a firm identity. In addition to this, there really is only so many slow, overly-polished ballads that one can handle, especially when a “Yeah!” or “Caught Up” (Christ, even a “U-Turn”) is desperately needed.
Usher Raymond certainly had the ideas, and the all-star team behind him, to top Confessions
, the album that remains his best. A general resistance to try new things and a desperate attempt to “become a man” and “grow up” is what drags the album down. Two good things can come of this, however- you can rediscover “Yeah!” for the phenomenal single that it was; or better still, go put on your copy of What’s Going On
to experience what Usher can, for now, only dream of becoming.