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Versus Play

Five months after the release of Raymond V Raymond -- shortly after the album went platinum -- a deluxe edition containing a second disc was released. Containing eight songs and dubbed Versus, the second disc was also spun off as a separate release, sparing devout Usher fans from the irritation of buying Raymond V Raymond a second time. (Perhaps LaFace learned a lesson when they pulled that stunt with the deluxe edition of Confessions). With the addition of Raymond V Raymond's “There Goes My Baby,” the number one R&B song at the time of release, the stand-alone Versus technically contains nine songs. It mostly resembles a batch of leftovers, though it also functioned as a momentum maintainer; two other songs, the Euro-pop club track “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” and the sleazed-up “Hot Tottie” (featuring a Jay-Z guest verse), were on the R&B chart before the disc was issued. For the most part, Versus falls in line with its parent release’s mix of detached hedonism and pleading heartache. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Raymond V. Raymond Play

Previewed in late 2009 with the number one Hot R&B/Hip-Hop single "Papers," a song inspired by his real-life divorce, Usher's sixth studio album arrives as three other singles -- including the outrageously sleazy "Lil Freak," featuring Nicki Minaj, and the slightly less so "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)" -- are climbing the singles charts. The defiant, debauchery-heavy album features production work from Rico Love, Sean Garrett, will.i.am, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Jermaine Dupri, among others. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Looking 4 Myself Play

Usher was pushing his "revolutionary pop" concept as early as 2010, when he told StyleList, "I love that people are talking about the new hair, it represents who I am now and the creative movement of revolutionary pop." Prior to the release of his seventh studio album, he was doing it more than ever, quite likely encouraged by a Top Five Hot 100 collaboration with mainstream dance kingpin David Guetta ("Without You"). With rare exception, revolutionary pop as presented on Looking 4 Myself sounds just like contemporary pop-oriented R&B, or European dance-pop, or some combination of the two. Compared to Usher's previous album, this is weighted more heavily toward dance-pop, much of which is functional and well made but unremarkable. The set is front-loaded with two such numbers. "Can't Stop Won't Stop," a typically savvy production from will.i.am and partner Keith Harris, incorporates flashes of commercial dubstep and a synthesized version of that escalating wordless melody from Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl." The Max Martin/Shellback-produced "Scream," a Top 20 hit by the time the album was released, is a pummeling dancefloor track with a mindless seduction theme. Next is the stellar Diplo collaboration "Climax," a bittersweet, 100% modern ballad that creates tension with space. It's more moving than what precedes and follows, but there are other highlights and a couple pleasantly surprising twists. "Lemme See," featuring Rick Ross, is a slithering, low-slung jam -- one of Usher's best. The easygoing yet emotive title track, a cross between new wave and soft rock with an appearance from Luke Steele (the Sleepy Jackson, Empire of the Sun), could pass for a cover of a missing track from the back half of the first N.E.R.D. album. Ironically, that's the singer's boldest move. While Usher's talent as a vocalist adds some depth to the producer-driven field of dance music, he's more of a creative force when he's working with slower, soul-rooted material. There's no shame in riding the wave, especially when you can do it better than anyone else. Calling it revolutionary is disingenuous. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Confessions Play

Confessions' most detracting factor is its length. At an hour in duration, it could be stripped of five songs and be far more powerful, especially since no one would have to do any wading to get to the meaty parts. On the other side of the coin, the smartest move Usher makes here is in allowing the Lil Jon-produced "Yeah!" to take its rightful place as the only club track; any attempt at doing something stylistically similar would've failed miserably in its presence. "Yeah!"'s crunk-meets-R&B foundation, featuring an instantly addictive eight-note keyboard vamp and one of Usher's most muscular turns, is so absorbing that Ludacris' 1500th guest verse floats by with little notice. The following "Throwback," produced by Just Blaze, sounds like it was made for the sole purpose of trailing Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name." Like that hit, "Throwback"'s sensitively treated soul sample provides a nostalgic tint that complements the wistful, regret-filled tone of the lyrics. A small batch of Jam & Lewis productions, including the effortlessly gliding "Truth Hurts," continue to help raise Usher's loverman stock. Another pair -- the upbeat "Caught Up" and the aptly titled "Burn" -- also rate as some of the vocalist's best moments yet. He's been doing this for ten years now. Numerous chart hits have spun off each of his albums. Needless to say, the time is right for the phrase "just another" to be banned from use when discussing him. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

Here I Stand Play

After the release of 2004's Confessions, an album that transformed Usher from an R&B star into a pop superstar, the singer became a husband and father. That grants Here I Stand more lyrical depth than the four previous Usher albums, but we're not talking fathoms. There's a two-minute lullaby for his son, and the noticeably increased talk of settling down and turning in his player card ("My search ends here," "This time love won't let me leave") now holds more weight since he has actually done it through the eyes of the law; he certainly never would have thought to use "Your mama and my mama want some grandbabies tonight" at any earlier point in his life. More seriously, and less noxiously, the changes in his life are most evident throughout "Before I Met You," a song that is more direct, sincere, and ultimately believable than "Confessions, Pt. 2.": "You got my life together and I thank you forever." Otherwise, Here I Stand is almost exactly the kind of release you'd expect a 29-year-old Usher to deliver in 2008, and while it is seriously doubtful the album will move more copies than the nearly diamond platinum Confessions, there is plenty to like about it. Beyond some tepid material that can only be expected with a 74-minute album, its biggest weakness is in what it does not contain, like the leaked "Play Me" and the briefly charting "Dat Girl Right There," both of which would have been major highlights. Perhaps these songs would have tipped the scale too far in favor of Usher's wild bachelor past, covered effectively enough through "Love in This Club" (present in its bleary original and sugary sequel forms), the thoroughly synth-lasered "What's Your Name" (the closest in make-up to "Yeah!," if not nearly as revelrous), and the dramatic whirlwind "Appetite" (a Danja-produced Clutch collaboration, the best narrative R. Kelly did not write). Out of the small handful of brow-raising moments, "Trading Places" takes the cake. Put together with Tricky Stewart and the-Dream, it's nearly surreal, with Usher putting equal fervor into several visions of role reversals, whether they are romantic ("You get on top/Tonight I'm on the bottom") or menial ("Wash the car/I'm gonna walk the dog"). Questionable omissions and a little oddness aside, the album leaves no doubt that the R&B male crown (30 and under division) should not change hands. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi

My Way Play

Usher proved that he had a strong, soulful voice with his self-titled debut, but he fulfilled his potential on his second record, My Way. What makes Usher distinctive from his urban loverman peers is the fact that he doesn't oversing; he simply delivers his songs soulfully. Unfortunately, he falls prey to uneven material, just like any of his peers, but there are more strong songs on My Way than many contemporary R&B albums from the late '80s. Both Jermaine Dupri and Babyface contribute seamless productions and fine songs; respectively, "You Make Me Wanna..." and "Bedtime" are their best ballad contributions. Even if the ballads are usually seductive and romantic, cuts like the funky "Just Like Me," which features a cameo from Lil' Kim, might make you wish Usher didn't play it cool all of the time. And while it's refreshing to hear a hip-hop/urban R&B album clock in at a reasonable running time, it would have been nice if the tenth track was something other than a remix of "You Make Me Wanna..." Nevertheless, it's a strong second effort that showcases Usher at his best. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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