Sunday, December 14, 2008

Usher -- Here I Stand

Rating: 3/5 stars

Pros: Married with a newborn, Usher is all grown up.

Cons: To0 many songs that sound like American-Idol standards.

Bottom Line: Forgettable album aims for the bedroom, ends up with elevator music.

Recommended Tracks:

Love in This Club

Moving Mountains

It's hard to believe Usher's Confessions was released only four years ago. No album since has matched its chart dominance — four No. 1 hits ("Yeah," "Burn," "Confessions II" and "My Boo") that spent more than half of 2004 atop Billboard. At the time, its commercial success (9 million records sold) was merely remarkable; in today's climate, it's unfathomable.

With the emergence of the digital download and the fracturing of the pop culture scene, the days of the mega album may be gone forever. Since 2004, album sales have plummeted. 2007's top-seller (Josh Groban's Noel) barely sold 3 million copies. Over the past year, artists used to going platinum their opening weekend (Mariah Carey, 50 Cent) have found themselves struggling to reach that mark at all. Many of the industry's top stars, such as Eminem and Shania Twain, have simply stopped releasing new music.

So how do you top an album the rest of the industry couldn't? The question looms over Usher's latest Here I Stand. Every pop artist dreams of musical success, but few chased fame as single-mindedly as Usher. Since signing a record deal as a teenager in the early '90s, he methodically worked himself toward stardom. The musical experimentation of his contemporaries (Justin Timberlake, Andre 3000) never interested him; Usher always stayed safely within the confines of modern R&B.

The ideal R&B singer would look very much like Usher — more seasoned then younger singers such as Chris Brown, more versatile than current hit makers like Akon and T-Pain, all the while maintaining an image acceptable to both corporate America and the club scene. You'd have to go all the way back to the original King of Pop to find a comparable artist, no surprise considering how heavily Usher borrows from the Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

And while he's had his brushes with the tabloids, Usher's been careful to avoid the seedier aspects of modern stardom. Here I Stand emphasizes this wholesomeness; he's now a newly married father. Where Confessions revolved around him cheating on the woman he loves, Here I Stand is full of earnestly delivered lines about love and commitment: "I was a hustler and a player girl before I met you / But how you made a difference, look what I've been missing / You got my life together, and I thank you forever."

The difference is that great art is inspired more by pain than joy. Usher's imperfections on Confessions made him more relatable and gave songs like "Burn" an edge. Aside from the standout Young Jeezy-assisted lead single ("Love in This Club") and an R. Kelly-like plunge into lyrical absurdity ("Trading Places"), "Here I Stand" is full of generic R&B standards. They're well sung, but they're songs a choir-boy type like "American Idol's" David Archuleta would be comfortable with. It's music for the elevator, not the bedroom.

For most of his career, Usher has been fortunate to be matched with equally talented producers (Diddy, Jermaine Dupri and LA Reid). This time he's not similarly challenged as the few big-name collaborations that do appear (, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Lil' Wayne) seem more for name value than musical chemistry.

Usher never has been afraid to follow a trend (Lil' Jon's "Yeah"), and it might be no coincidence that Here I Stand feels so much like "American Idol," a show that appeals to the blandest elements of pop culture and is one of Hollywood's last reliable blockbusters. The crowd who danced to "Yeah" and sang along to "Burn"? They don't buy CDs anymore.

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