"The College Droput"

Roc-A-Fella Records

Let's get out of the way upfront that the absurdity of reviewing Usher's "Confessions" is self-evident. After all, you've already heard a chunk of it if you listen to any radio besides country, classical or the blathering blowhards of talk shows. The insanely catchy track "Yeah!," with its Lil' Jon-produced musical hook and rap cameo by Ludacris, and the breakup groove "Burn" have dominated radio playlists and music video channels, and justifiably so. The Jermaine Dupri-produced "Confessions Part II" continued the trend, and Usher became the third artist in history (joining the Beatles and the Bee Gees) to score three Top 10 singles in one week.

Growing up after starting out young, Usher is much more involved in the songwriting on this album, having a hand in the crafting of the majority of the tunes. Plus, he's paired up with producers that, as he has put it, "do a good job of going" where he wants to go. Namely, Dupri, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis. Production masters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis even take a turn behind the boards on a few songs.

Aside from the radio hits so far, other tracks of note include the smooth with a twist "Truth Hurts," the soulful "Simple Things" and the sexy "That's What It's Made For."

The result is a fine standard bearer for classic R&B (rarity of rarities these days, it doesn't even have a parental advisory sticker).

Kanye West has taken up the flag of intelligent hip-hop with "The College Dropout." A producer who helped craft hits for such notables as Jay-Z, Ludacris and Alicia Keys, West's album has smart, often funny, lyrics and great musical hooks. It's full of solid tracks. "Through the Wire," the insistent "Jesus Walks," "All Falls Down" with a lovely vocal cameo from Syleena Johnson and four MTV Video Music Award nominations, "We Don't Care" and "Get 'em High" are all standouts. His rapping isn't as unusual or technically impressive as some, but he has a voice that's easy and familiar. West is having no trouble making the transition from behind-the-scenes producer to on-the-mike hitmaker.

-- Curt Fields

Appearing Friday at MCI Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Usher, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8115; to hear Kanye West, press 8116. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)