At the age of 29, one would think that Usher would have infinite fountains of inspiration. He's a newly-wed, a first-time father and the owner of one of the decade's best-selling R&B albums. Yet, with one cursory listen of Here I Stand, he gives off the impression that he is uninspired. Whether intentional or not, the ground Usher stands upon is familiar terrain — dashing all hopes that he would break new ground.
To be fair, expectations for his Confessions follow-up were extraordinarily high. (Heck, music lovers of all stripes hailed that album as an R&B classic!) But fueling further hopes, however, in the year following Confessions' release, was a double-dose of R&B triumphs: the successful "breakthrough" of Mary J. Blige's career and the phenomenal "emancipation" of Mariah Carey. And in the interim between Confessions and Here I Stand, even Mary and Mariah's follow-ups have decisively topped the charts, with Growing Pains and E=MC2 selling 629,000 and 463,000 copies in their respective first weeks.
So while it may seem safe to say that Usher would face extraordinary difficulty in producing anything close to his "confessional" masterpiece, time has shown us — over and over again — that things thought untouchable can often be outdone.
In the world of R&B, this is especially true.
Stevie Wonder penned "I Wish" and "Ribbon in the Sky" long after "My Cherie Amour." Prince delivered "Kiss" fresh off the heels of "Purple Rain." And R. Kelly, well after at his pre-scandal peak ("I Believe I Can Fly"), scored six number one hits ("I'm Your Angel," "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," "I Wish," "Fiesta," "Ignition" and "Step in the Name of Love").
That being said, after a four-year wait, it is disappointing to think that "Love in this Club" is the best effort Usher could muster. Only time, however, will tell the tale. But if you thought Here I Stand would be a proclamation of growth and self-discovery, think again! The album is quite the contrary: a disappointing display of artistic regression.
Considering the mature elements that are currently bombarding Usher's life, like marriage and fatherhood, his lyrics are surprisingly juvenile, especially on will.i.am's whimsical track, "What's Your Name?" In fact, the lyrical content, by and large, is quite trite. In the first fifteen minutes, Usher makes "love in the club," then reminds listeners that "this ain't sex." And as the love-filled romp continues and he "trades" positions, err umm, "places" with his love, Usher subtly delivers the album's best offering: a profession that maintaining a deeper love is like "moving mountains."
(Yawn.) Need I say more?
Usher is too talented an artist to take the road frequently traveled! And as a modern R&B legend, it is unfortunate that Usher did not spend more time surveying the lyrical and sonic ground that Here I Stand rests upon. Even in this era of calculated marketing, such missteps are striking, not only because he is R&B royalty, but because the material does his vocals an injustice, by placing them on a plot of sinking sand.
In the past, before Usher became "Usher," he overcame similar challenges with great gusto. When "Pop Your Collar" received a professional bruising in 2000, Usher tinkered with 8701 and resurfaced with a string of massive hits: "U Remind Me," "U Got It Bad" and "U Don't Have to Call." With the advent of iTunes, however, Here I Stand suffered a different fate: the album's lead single ("Love in this Club") soared up the charts and gave Usher no compelling reason to revisit the musical terrain he placed himself upon.
Simply put, Usher talents are too good for this commercial nonsense. If only "Love in this Club" had failed at radio, then perhaps a different incarnation of Here I Stand would have hit the shelves. Unfortunately, the world will never know, since the album is now a permanent part of his musical repertoire.
Even though Here I Stand lacks substance or a fraction of innovative flair, one can assume that the (expected) re-release will "stand" upon solid ground and, hopefully, be worthy of his name, image, and talents.
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