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Raymond v. Raymond
Regardless of how good or bad the record is (mostly good), Usher's sixth studio album Raymond v. Raymond
marks his ascension toward a plateau of R&B superstardom on which his only peer is R. Kelly. Since Confessions
(2004), the tone of his records has been increasingly, um, confessional, but at its best moments his mock-schizophrenic new album pushes this tendency towards a kind of deconstructive, self-referential parody. He proclaims as much on the absurdly enigmatic album intro: "There's three sides to every story: There's one side, there's the other, and then there's the truth." The ensuing opener "Monstar", with its Gaga-esque title, is the most engrossing two-faced track to come from the recent rush of split-personality "concept" records (T.I. vs. T.I.P.
, I Am... Sasha Fierce
, etc.). It begins with a driving beat and aching, melodramatic strings over which Usher sings plaintively, almost pathetically: "Girl when you're lonely and you're longing for a lover/you know I'll be/I'll be here all night." Then out of nowhere the chorus roars in on a disco spaceship, with a roboticized Usher proclaiming: "I'm back, celebrate life." It's a daring, bizarre and completely successful fusion of this pop monster's two most reliable types of hit: the moody, heartfelt and always slightly sad seduction (eg. "You Make Me Wanna"
), and the epic, electronic club anthem (eg. "Yeah!"
The rest of Raymond
, not surprisingly, can be divided pretty evenly into those two categories, with a few mostly excellent guest appearances peppered throughout and big, broad electronic production dominating on all but a couple of tracks. One of those exceptions would be the sparse, drippy and playful "Pro Lover," with its trickle of guitar licks and clever verses that are like a string of winking jokes about Usher's career as a professional ladykiller. Playing on his passion for the job, he starts the track with a lab report-like dissection of his craft: "I profess, I'm another modern scholar of anatomy/a doc of feminine chemistry/got a healthy fascination for a multitude of relations/with any women that's in the field." Usher rarely gets sonic room to show off his songwriting skills, but here he makes the most of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's accommodating, retro production.
The album's earlier attempt at comedy, the third single "OMG"
produced by and featuring a guest verse from will.i.am, was apparently written during a series of text message exchanges. Ridiculous lyrics like, "Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow/honey got some boobies like wow, oh, wow," are forgivable for the first two minutes only because the beat seems as if it's actually going somewhere interesting. Then the Black Eyed Pea drops his compulsory verse and the song falls flat. All the other guests—unless you count P. Diddy doing his shouting-over-the-chorus thing on the enjoyably generic dance floor burner "So Many Girls"—are excellent, especially Nicki Minaj on the hand clap-powered "Love in This Club"
sequel of sorts "Lil Freak,"
and T.I. sounding in fine form on the tongue-in-cheek "Guilty," which is peppered with allusions to the rapper's recent prison term, Usher's divorce last year, and Tiger Woods. Such self-deprecating humor and current events commentary is all too rare in mainstream R&B, which often seems stuck between club-sexy and relationship-sexy as its only available modes.
As if falling pray to that quandary and fulfilling the prophecy of the album's title, Raymond trips himself up on several solo tracks, especially towards the end of the record, where a little editing would have gone a long way. "Papers," for instance, is probably the most entertaining song about filing divorce documents you'll ever hear, but that's not saying much. The spacey club hook-up slow jam "Okay" is about as mediocre as its title suggests, and "Making Love (Into The Night)" would be a forgettable sexpertise anthem if it didn't have Usher closing out the album with an uncanny Bone Thugs impression. Weirdly, the middle track "Mars vs. Venus" is the album's low-point, just like "Venus vs. Mars" was on Jay-Z's Blueprint 3
. Nevertheless, Raymond v. Raymond
is excellent up to that point—another early success, "There Goes My Baby," can't help but remind of Thriller
-era Michael Jackson—and hit-or-miss thereafter. More importantly, Usher seems to be testing the borders of the field that he's dominated for most of the last thirteen years. But if it's going to take killing off his former self for him to evolve, how will he know which Raymond to get rid of and which one to keep?