Like Barry White, Jodeci, and R. Kelly before him, R&B superstar Usher is the master of a very specific milieu: music for — and about — making babies. And it has certainly served him well. Since the now 29-year-old first emerged as a precocious, buttery-smooth lothario in the mid-’90s, he’s brought home five Grammys, racked up a dozen top 10 singles, and sold more than 25 million records. So what happens when one of the biggest sex symbols in the business, who last dominated the charts with 2004’s Confessions, actually settles down and makes his own? (A baby, that is.)
The newly married dad — son Usher Raymond V was born last November — is both different and entirely the same on his fifth album, Here I Stand. One moment, he’s celebrating fatherhood with ”Prayer for You” (”You carry my name/And I pray that you’re better than me”) as his little boy gurgles in the background, or he’s reciting earnest paeans to monogamy (”Before I Met You,” ”Something Special”). The next, Usher’s groin-thrusting his way through salacious bedroom grooves like ”Trading Places” and ”This Ain’t Sex.” Indeed, the already massive single ”Love in This Club” is about as libidinous as he’s ever been: ”Let’s both get undressed right here/Keep it up girl, I swear/I’ma give it to you nonstop/And I don’t care/Who’s watchin’,” he croons over producer Polow Da Don’s shuddering, sex-drenched synths. Well then, Mr. Naughty!
Amid all the back-and-forth, a certain well-known pair of newlyweds drop in — Beyoncé on the insidious, if oddly drowsy, half sequel, ”Love in This Club Part II,” and Jay-Z on the horn-laden second-chance anthem ”Best Thing” — as do Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, and will.i.am. Ultimately, though, they’re just icing. Usher is still best when on his own, especially when he’s at his most raw. The gripping slow-burn ballad ”Moving Mountains” — in which he pleads, ”Just leave me” over and over to an emotionally remote lover — is an easy pick for a second single. And the equally helpless ”His Mistakes,” about a relationship haunted by the man who came before him, vibrates with genuine hurt and anger.
The album’s title track, a well-wrought Stevie Wonderesque throwback, doesn’t come till the end, and that’s a shame, because some listeners may already be flagging by then. At nearly 70 minutes, the disc could certainly have used a stronger editing hand, and even in his newly revelatory state, Usher remains more a smooth entertainer than an astute lyricist. Still, a good portion of Stand‘s tunes deserve a place in the dance-floor pantheon — and, yes, in the bedroom, too. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear ”Love in This Club” on Usher’s MySpace page