Music: “Raymond V. Raymond” – Usher
Usher has been going through quite a few personal and professional dramas lately. First, there was the three year plus saga of his relationship with his one-time stylist Tameka Foster (engagement/marriage/health concerns/babies/divorce), which was followed by the less-than-lukewarm reception of his ode to domestic maturity Here I Stand (it sold slightly more overall than Confessions did in its first week), and now he is struggling mightily to stay relevant in the male R&B game. With a landscape that is currently dominated by the fresh faces of Chris -Let's all forget that ugly incident- Brown (we won't), and Omarion (both of whom were born in the decade after Usher dropped), the 31-year-old Dallas native may well have seen his primacy begin to fade. It is safe to say that the days of blue laser-filled clubs and Little John hopping around like some kind of dirty, Southern, crunk-juice-sippin', goblin pied piper are long over.
Like far too many records these days, Raymond V. Raymond was plagued by delays (it is fucking unbelievable to think that Zeppelin released both 1 & 2 in 1969), and record label indifference. The official statement from Usher's people regarding the records release date change had its own spin: "The release of Usher's next album, Raymond v Raymond, has been delayed because we believe that the album is so strong that we want to give it the opportunity to have the proper setup before coming out". I seem to remember hearing similar statements being made about the new Lil' Wayne record, and we all know how good that turned out to be. Maybe the fact that the album had almost as many producers as it has tracks had something to do with it not being ready. Excuse me, I meant to say, "had something to do with it being so strong'". Whatever the reasons were for the albums' delays don't matter; it has dropped, been heard, and for the most part, disregarded.
The tone of Raymond V. Raymond's first single, Daddy's Home, makes us all aware that this is going to be a seductive and over-sexed record, unless "Float that bottom up in the air" means something different to the kids than it did in my day. This is the kind of record that uses groans and moans as accompaniment to throbbing bass lines and squeaking mattresses. Raymond Vs. Raymond begins with Monstar (not a typo), a song that has some decent production choices (complete with phased-out strings, a breathy rhythmic collage, and whispering concubine), as well as one of the most overindulgent intro sequences EVER (it's ridiculous)! As the tempo slows down for the first time we are exposed to the very Seal-like There Goes My Baby, which sounds more like the songs that Usher should be making as a 31 year-old father of two; that opinion is reinforced emphatically when you hear the atrocity that is the next track, Lil Freak. To describe Lil Freak as cringeworthy does a disservice to the word cringeworthy (yet it isn't even the worst song on the record); the beats are lackluster, the hook is an embarrassment, the verses are a waste, and the cameo by Nicki Manaji is so downright awful that producers the world over need to erase her number from their phones right now. On the opposite end of the cameo spectrum, there is the Ludacris verse in She Don't Know, a song that was nothing more than a hot mess before he THANKFULLY took the mic. It is a shame that there is no Luda on OMG, the Will.I.Am produced contribution that may very well be the worst song of the year so far. Seriously, where is the quality control? Doesn't Usher have people or handlers around him that can offer him some advice, or jump on aural grenades like this? The beat is obviously a B.E.P b-side; its got the cheesy synth-pads, the digital claps, insipid arpeggio, and hideous snare, but it's not just the production that's awful. Check out this poetry "Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow/ Honey got some boobies like wow oh wow"... Boobies... The man actually used the word boobies. When Usher said he was bringing it back, I had no idea he meant fucking grade-school; what an utter sophomoric fail.
The album gets a little more autobiographical around the slow-grooving, sweetly piano-accented Fooling Around; here we again see the Usher that Usher needs to evolve into, a more sophisticated crooner who will be more adept at selling records as his sex appeal fades away (it will happen one day, ladies). The best song on this record has to be Papers, a song that tells the story of the demise of his marriage; you can feel the emotion on this track and it carries more weight than just about all the other tracks combined. While it truly is a shame that this number wasn't used as the template for this record, it is in no way surprising that the songs written about personal issues and emotions are infinitely better than the mindless jams about how many girls in the club want to touch his Greatness. You would think with the limitless examples of this truth that exist in music, that artists would catch on and try to really connect more with their material, their fans, and themselves.
Usher has made his money (he has been in the game since he was 13) and while he has reached the top of the mountain, he has been slipping. This record will move some units, but it won't bring him back to the peak.