With Raymond vs. Raymond, Usher makes his first purely commercial album and, in the process, makes the worst album of his career.
There are three important things one must recognize in order to properly understand why Usher's latest album, Raymond vs. Raymond, is his worst.
1. Confessions really was not all that confessional. But promoting it as such did make it a huge commercial success.
2. Here I Stand was a damn near flawless album, with 8 perfect songs ("This Ain't Sex", "His Mistakes", "Lifetime", "Will Work for Love", "Trading Places", and especially "Love You Gently," "Revolver", and the title track) and at least another 4 or 5 pretty good songs. It was a huge artistic leap forward that managed to transform the R&B king into a stone-cold soulman. And that was a good thing.
3. Here I Stand failed commercially for one reason, and one reason only: his fanbase hated his wife. Period.
Now, Raymond vs. Raymond is an album that was created as if the three points I raise above are not true. That they are true is what makes listening to this cynically commercial and desperate album such a tremendous disappointment. Before this album dropped, I would have said that Usher was the most consistently brilliant pop star in a generation, able to perfectly marry commercial ambition with superb songcraft.
That was before this album, though. To be fair, there are some nice moments here -- "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)" and "Fooling Around" are pleasant, if forgettable, and "There Goes My Baby" features some nice falsetto work from Ursh -- but most of this album feels like an artist struggling to hold onto relevance. Clearly, aging out of the industry's targeted demographic has got Usher shook. So he apes Trey Songz' tasteless R. Kelly schtick on "Lil Freak", featuring the latest terrible female rapper, Nicky Minaj. He just ends up sounding like a dirty old man. At 31, that's just not a good look. Then there's "OMG", the latest incoherent madness from will.i.am. The song manages to be both dull and interminable. And "She Don't Know" is the pretty much the exact same song as Beyonce's "Diva" (so much so that Ludacris name checks her). Again, not a good look. Usher's eye is so glued to the charts that I wouldn't even be surprised if "She Don't Know" is the next single. There is simply no other reason for its inclusion here.
The most interesting songs work because of great production, since no one seemed to pay much attention to melody or using Usher's terrific vocal abilities this go-round. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis basically save the album from complete ruin with their three songs: "Monstar", "Pro Lover", and "Mars vs. Venus". "Monstar" is the best of the three, and it's also the best song on the album, by far. It is monstrous and melodramatic -- but it's also compelling. It actually sounds similar to Jimmy and Terry's early work for Janet, and that's a very, very good thing. In addition, Ursh's singing is urgent, present, and flawless. That "Monstar" opens the album and there is nothing to rival it is a real shame. The only song that comes even remotely close is "Guilty", which works because Usher's singing is unadorned. Danja's track for "So Many Girls" is easily his best work since Trey Songz' "Wonder Woman", but it basically sounds like a reject from Justin's FutureSex/LoveSound. Just not a good look.
What's most frustrating about Raymond vs. Raymond is that it replicates the most tasteless and least admirable aspect of the Confessions era. It exploits his personal life for profit, selling you on the notion that you are going to get a peak into Usher's inner emotional life even though you are not, and it does it with some of the most aggressively misogynistic and silly lyricism that Usher's ever sung. He essentially boiled Confessions down to its worst elements and released it -- 14 variations of Confessions' most digusting song, "That's What It's Made For".
Because, let's remember, consumers rejected his grown and sexy and romantic look on Here I Stand, so clearly he had to go for juvenile, gross, and tawdry here. Except had someone in Ursh's camp reminded him that his most memorable songs -- "Burn", "You Remind Me", "You Make Me Wanna", "Think of You", "Throwback", "U Got It Bad" -- are deeply heartfelt, romantic songs, then we mighta gotten something better here. There is nothing remotely emotional, let alone romantic, on Raymond vs. Raymond, which is a regression, nakedly commercial, and completely soulless.
There is a point in the careers of artists who have longevity where they simply age out of the demographic that the industry targets. Usher has hit that point. The audience that this album is geared toward does not see Usher as the greatest pop star of his generation -- because it's not their generation. They simply relate to him differently than the generation that made him a star at the turn of the century. That is just how it goes. The truth is, Usher will never equal the commercial breakthrough of Confessions. And that's okay. Someone should tell him that that's okay. Albums like that are the result of a perfect storm of elements that are hard to recreate. It doesn't mean he can't make a better album -- Here I Stand was, in many ways, a superior album to Confessions -- even if it doesn't sell quite as much. Usher should know that.
But the problem is, he's a pop star, and the industry -- despite all evidence to the contrary with nearly ever artist in history -- thinks it can get another diamond-certified album out of Usher. So they convinced him to make a pale imitation of Confessions, sell it as if it was exactly like Confessions, and hope no one notices that it's not Confessions.