CD Review of Here I Stand by Usher
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Ne-Yo, K-Ci & JoJo, R. Kelly
Label
LaFace
Usher: Here I Stand

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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M
y, how time flies: It was actually 14 years ago that L.A. Reid signed a 14-year-old singer named Usher Raymond to his first recording contract, following up this bit of foresight with the decision to pair the kid up with Sean “Puffy” Combs as a mentor. Reid’s taste in babysitters is horrible, but he knows how to steward a hit – and in matching up a teenage choirboy with a glassy-eyed club-hopper like Combs, he must have understood, on some level, that he was continuing the glorious R&B tradition of locking the sacred in close quarters with the profane. Usher, for his part, undoubtedly had no idea what to make of his lifestyle change, but nonetheless, his music has strongly reflected that struggle, particularly on his later albums – especially the most recent, 2004’s Confessions, which took him from teen heartthrob to tabloid-hogging poon hound in the time it takes to say “Yeah!”

All the real-life baby mama drama that went on behind the scenes of Confessions no doubt contributed to the album’s massive sales, but it also, as it turns out, set up the next act in Usher’s life – both personally and professionally. In the four years since we saw him last, he’s become a husband and a father, and these experiences heavily inform the 18 tracks on his new release, Here I Stand. Of course, musically, the album is still every bit as focused on cutting-edge R&B as everything else Usher’s ever done; fans hoping for the very latest in technology-assisted dance beats or baby-makin’ ballads will still find plenty to latch onto here. Lyrically, though, while the songs are still aimed pretty squarely below the belt, they do add a few domestic life-inspired wrinkles. The most obvious example is “Prayer for You (Interlude),” which starts off with the cries of Usher’s newborn son before moving on to standard new-parent platitudes (“You carry my name / And I pray that you’re better than me”). It sounds like hokey stuff, and it is, but at under two minutes, it’s short enough to fall on the sunny side of the line between sweet and mawkish.

It’s also a pretty naked tip of the hat to Stevie Wonder – which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Usher’s work – and in that regard, it’s got company on Here I Stand: the album features a number of songs with a little bit of old-school Motown flavor, most notably “Something Special” and the title track. Just a little, though – he’s too trend-obsessed a performer, and uses too many producers (among them Palow da Don, Danja, Ne-Yo, and Tricky Stewart), for the album to be too much of any one thing. (“His Mistakes” is an R&B mind-meld of Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man” and Meat Loaf’s “I’ll Do Anything for Love [But I Won’t Do That],” with a dash of synth strings from a Phil Collins record thrown in.)

All in all, it’s a pretty impressive step forward from Usher, particularly in the context of the genre; he’s one of the few modern R&B artists to even bother trying to honestly address the transition from young adulthood to married life and parenthood, and even if he falls a few dozen miles shy of Marvin Gaye territory, we can at least be thankful that there’s some personal reflection going on here – it’s a wonderful alternative to more of the same tail-obsessed, vocoder-heavy crap you can hear pretty much everywhere else. (Alas, that damn vocoder effect does pop up here, but only briefly, for Lil Wayne’s grating cameo on “Love in This Club, Part II.”)

What bogs the record down, ultimately, is its grossly excessive length. None of the songs here are outright bad, but there are too damn many of them, and the balance is tilted heavily in favor of unremarkable ballads; at 18 tracks and over an hour and 10 minutes in length, the album becomes something of an endurance test, which is a real shame, because it buries some really solid songs. (One easy candidate for removal: “What’s Your Name,” featuring a useless guest appearance from will.i.am.) You get the feeling that Usher really wanted to tell a story here, which is admirable – but next time out, he could really use an editor who isn’t afraid to make liberal use of the red pen. Still, despite its awkward length, Here I Stand is stacked with singles – and even if you don’t buy the album, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hear them all over the next year or so.

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