For a second, Usher was the King of Pop. He’d been successful by anyone’s definition of the word, but 2004’s “Confessions” sent him into the stratosphere. It spawned 4 #1 singles, won 3 Grammy Awards, and is the last album to be certified Diamond for shipments of 10 million copies. Not only had Usher officially made the leap from teen idol to adult superstar, but his follow up album, 2008’s “Here I Stand”, was widely expected to cement his megastar status.
“Here I Stand” wasn’t a bad album. It just wasn’t the world-beater that “Confessions” was. From a sales standpoint, “Stand” moved less than 15% of “Confessions”‘ take. A million and change sold is nothing to sneeze at, but those are sales totals for mere mortals, and Usher was supposedly beyond that. Mr. Raymond should have given Michael Jackson a call. I’m sure that he would’ve let Usher know that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Less than two years after “Here I Stand”, Usher is back with “Raymond vs. Raymond”, and this album has flop sweat all over it. This is the music industry’s version of a do-over, and it oozes with desperation. Someone somewhere absolutely mandated that Usher be returned to his previous superstar status, and drafted a blueprint to help Usher regain that success. He’s teamed with some of today’s hottest producers, gotten a hold of more guest rappers than have appeared on any other Usher album to date, and has certainly regressed from a lyrical standpoint. Where “Here I Stand” was the mature document of a married, committed man trying to make things work, Usher has only one thing on his mind during “Raymond vs. Raymond”. S-E-X.
The only song on “Raymond” that doesn’t reference Usher’s prominence as a world-class pimp is “Papers”, a slow jam that seems to be an account of his recent divorce. Makes me wonder if his freedom from (presumed) monogamy is why he decided to devote an entire album to his penile prowess.
The production on “Raymond vs. Raymond” is more or less typical of current pop/R&B. The album was definitely made for the clubs-there’s barely a “real” instrument to be found. It gives the album a very monotonous vibe. Even after a couple of listens, there are certain songs I can’t differentiate from others.
Even the songs I CAN differentiate don’t really stick to the ribs. The album’s best songs are the midtempos and ballads-particularly “There Goes My Baby” (the closest thing this album has to a real soul song). “Foolin’ Around” is a pretty generic Jermaine Dupri song, but Usher and JD have a really good chemistry and it winds up being one of the album’s better tracks. “Guilty” is vaguely interesting from a lyrical standpoint (and features an on point verse from T.I., whose rapping proficiency has increasted tenfold in the last three years or so), and “Making Love (Into the Night)” is an interesting recasting of the soft-rock classic “Into the Night” from Benny Mardones. It’s not altogether successful (the Bone Thugs-like rapping from Usher at the end is embarrassing), so when I list this as one of the highlights, you know there’s trouble ahead…
…Or trouble behind, since “Making Love (Into the Night)” is “Raymond”‘s last track. In order to get there (if you’re feeling lazy and not particularly inclined to use the skip button), you have to get through several atrocities. While inane lyrics and unimaginative production can be found throughout the album, three tracks in particular turn this album from a somewhat disappointing Usher record into a certified turd. “She Don’t Know” is a collaboration with Ludacris that finds the usually competent emcee on his “D” game. However, that song’s more lazy than outright bad. “Lil’ Freak” is not only an idiotic song about a ho…uh, sexually liberated woman who occasionally performs with other women for the sake of her male partner, but it performs sacrilege on Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” (via sample) and features 16 bars by Nicki Minaj. Nicki is the female “it” rapper of the moment, and believe me when I tell you that her existence makes you wish for the relative subtlety of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. This completely talentless ho-bag represents all that is wrong with hip-hop as well as pop culture at the moment.
However, the album’s biggest swing and miss is “OMG”, Usher’s second collaboration with Black Eyed Pea and frequent target of my vitriol, will.i.am. I can think of only three words to describe this song: Hot. Ghetto. Mess. I shall waste no more space on this travesty.
I have to admit, I knew this was coming. I’ve followed the music industry long enough (as a fan and an employee) to know that “Here I Stand”‘s sales were disappointing, and that Usher was going to get some flak from his management and people at the record label to deliver another record like “Confessions”. To them, I’m sure “Here I Stand” flopped because its’ themes were too mature. But Usher’s a 31-year old man. At a certain point, singing about mindless fucking gets old, and most people in Usher’s age range are past that stage in their lives. Those people aren’t going anywhere near “Raymond vs. Raymond”. So Usher had better hope that the teenage girls respond, and considering that they have moved on to the likes of Chris Brown and (Usher’s own protege) Justin Bieber, I find that scenario highly unlikely.