"Write what you know," the adage goes, and Usher Raymond IV has dutifully tried to heed the advice.
Why wouldn't he? After all, the washboard-ab'd R&B singer - who is known by only his first name - called his last album Confessions, and the CD was the top-selling disc of 2004, moving a whopping 9.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
But that was then. And Here I Stand (LaFace ** ½) presents a new Usher, a maturing, 29-year-old married man who's a new father and who, though he still has booty very much on his mind, is attempting to put his playa-listic days behind him.
Back in the day, "I'd do one every night, and sometimes I had two," he sings to his wife, Tameka Foster, in "Before I Met You." He tells her, and his hot and bothered audience, that he's just not into that kind of thing anymore.
Here I Stand is silky smooth and suavely produced, with big-name helmsmen including Jermaine Dupri, Nate "Danjahandz" Hills and the Philadelphia team of Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, who are responsible for the soft-core boudoir moves of "Love You Gently" and the statement of faithfulness "Here I Stand."
Besides the already massive "Love in This Club," which is ubiquitous on urban radio stations in forms both original (with a cameo rap by Young Jeezy) and remixed (with a vocal duet with Beyoncé, and guest-rhyming from Lil Wayne), there are plenty of other hit singles to be on Here I Stand.
The potential chart-toppers include the will.i.am-produced come-on "What's Your Name," and "Best Thing," which boasts a dependably satisfying Jay-Z drop-in as well as a slippery and soaring Michael Jackson-esque vocal from Usher himself.
And there's also "Something Special," the lightly jazzy, acoustic-flavored love song produced by Dupri. Taking a page out of the Babyface-John Mayer sensitivity stylebook, Usher expresses how pleased he is in his betrothed's all-important ability to put her own spin on the finest fashions. "I'm so proud of how you represent me, baby," the lover man sings. "Whether rockin' Armani, Dolce Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Louis or Gucci / You always do your own with it."
Despite the plethora of smooth pop moves on Here I Stand - which, at near an hour and a quarter in length, could use a trim - don't expect the album to do Confessions business. In the four year since Usher was heard from, CD sales have continually shrunk. Last year's biggest seller, Josh Groban's Noël, sold just over a third as many copies as Confessions.
If Here I Stand is not likely to duplicate its predecessor's commercial success, it doesn't measure up artistically, either. That's got something to do with the nature of the beast. As Bruce Springsteen learned with the lukewarm reaction to his early 1992 albums Lucky Town and Human Touch - and as Usher ascertained when news of his marriage was met with unpopular reaction on the Internet - the pop-music public tends to be lose interest when its heroes start singing about conjugal bliss. (The couple's son, Usher Raymond V, was born last year.)
Usher tries to compensate by mixing in a number of lusty selections - like the let's-do-it-in-public "Love in This Club" - on an album that tells of one man's progression from lothario to loyal husband. He also means to demonstrate that, even in a domestic setting, he can still get down and dirty. That would-be freaky streak shows up in "Appetite" (which dallies with Internet-enabled role playing but ultimately is about repression), as well as "Trading Places."
The latter borrows moves from R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" and Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend," but isn't nearly as daringly or convincingly kinky as either. Instead, its "tonight, I'm on the bottom" role-reversal seduction moves emphasize Usher's limitations. He's entertaining, easy to digest, and indeniably talented, but not all that interesting.
What's worse, the song could easily be mistaken for a parody by New Zealand musical comics Flight of the Conchords. "I'll make you a cup of Folger's baby, bacon and eggs, breakfast in bed," the multi-platinum Cassanova sweetly coos. Folger's? You couldn't even spring for Starbucks? That's no way to treat a lady.