Usher's Sensuous Storytelling Matures in 'Stand'
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
In the crowded field of abdomen-undulating R&B boychiks, Usher has long been king, thanks to his tender and nimble vocals. But since his Grammy-winning 2004 album, "Confessions," with its plotlines worthy of a telenovela, he's weathered even more major personal changes: breakups, makeups, one wedding and the birth of his first child.
Catapulted firmly into manhood, Usher now revisits the booty-shaking, babymaking content of his material with a more confident and relaxed cool that smacks of -- could it be? -- maturity.
Bookended by a heartfelt prelude that sounds like a love letter to his wife and a socially conscious hidden end track that explores poverty and loss, his new album, "Here I Stand," boasts a full plate of sensual crooning and titillating fantasy.
To a pulsing, new wave synth, Will.I.Am gives "What's Your Name" an exuberant pop sensibility with his production and vocal cameo. And Jay-Z shows up to compare notes on "Best Thing": "Seeds become plants/boys become men." But the blue ribbon guest spots are not the main attraction on "Here I Stand." The song concepts are.
For the sexy slow dance of "Trading Places," Usher switches up gender roles in a vividly illustrated rendezvous. And the morning after: "I'll wake you up to a cup of Folgers, pancakes and eggs/I owe you breakfast in bed." Funny how female advancement comes from the most unexpected places -- like a well-crafted Usher album cut.
But it's not all toast and orange juice; there are scars and sadness, too. To a gloomy piano track with a thumping backbeat on "His Mistakes," Usher conveys the sorrow of loving a woman with unresolved baggage from her past. His storytelling skills and flair for quiet drama ooze out of such lyrics as, "He left a scar across your heart/I understand, girl/Don't let his wrongs tear us apart."
The lead single, "Love in This Club," fully explores in two separate versions the possibilities of illicit lovemaking on the dance floor. The Polow Da Don-produced track ripples like strobe light, inducing a subdued shoulder shimmying rather than all-out roof raising, like Usher's monster freakfest from a few years back, "Yeah!" with Ludacris and Lil' Jon.
Young Jeezy sneers through witty punch lines in the first version, and an intoxicated-sounding Lil Wayne and a kittenish Beyoncé exchange flirtations on the Sounds-produced remix. In both versions of "Love in This Club," there's a mighty pressure coming from three different male voices to persuade one woman to succumb to spontaneous sex.
Beyoncé is this sole voice of female reason, fending off her various suitors: "I strongly doubt this velvet rope would hold me up/And I don't want security rollin' up on us."
Wayne croaks his wily seductions with the help of a little vocoder -- "Meet me in the bathroom and you could be my secret lover girl" -- as Usher exhales his breathy ad-libs in the background.
Illicit bathroom sex might not be the realm of fathers and husbands, but in Usher's world, it's all about flirting with fantasy.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "His Mistakes," "What's Your Name," "Love in This Club"