Last night, the VH1 blog got a sneak listen to the brand new Usher album, Here I Stand (which, starting Tuesday, you all will be able to listen to a full week before it’s release). With his first release in four years, following a baby, babymama and some serious drama, Usher bounces between the polls of undying fidelity and absolute tom-catting, but all of it is quality stuff. Though he’s been away for a minute, the singer let’s us know that he’s still very much a force in R&B. Here’s a track-by-track breakdown of our impressions.
1. “Intro” – It’s apparent that a stint on Broadway has rubbed off on our boy, and he opens his album on a rather dramatic note. He’s “walked alone and felt no one cares,” but then he found his one and only. A semi-maudlin piano line gets salvaged by the R&B tune it morphs into.
2. “Love In This Club” (produced by Polow Da Don) – Why listen to us describe the huge synthtastic single when you could listen to it here?
3. “This Ain’t Sex” (produced by Tricky and Jazzy Pha) – Though Ush does much to shake the Michael Jackson comparisons on this album, this track is highly reminiscent of Off The Wall. A slightly off-kilter vocal has Usher declaring “We ain’t having sex, we’re making moments that will outlast the world.” We’re not quite sure how that works, but he sounds convincing. The bass booms as the song builds, and Usher rides out on a sea of “da da da”s.
4. “Trading Places” (produced by L.O.S. DA MAESTRO) – Quite possibly the dirtiest song on the album, Usher delivers on the promise he makes at the beginning of the song of doing something different. Don’t expect that difference to be musically however; the switch is in roles. Ush wants his lady to take control: take him out to dinner, be on top and tell him to shut up so the neighbors don’t hear. It seems that Usher’s time with R. Kelly has rubbed off in terms of lyrical absurdity. Bummer alert: while outlining the morning after the night before, Usher describes how he wants to be treated to breakfast in bed. With Folgers.
5. “Moving Mountains” (produced by Tricky & Terius “The Dream” Nash) – In this tearjerker, Usher describes a relationship gone cold with the help of “Umbrella” whiz The Dream. Piano trickles in between a super-stressed synth line last heard on ‘90s club anthem “Y’All Ready For This?” Huge drums compete with Usher’s repeated plea to “leave me.” Fact: this video will feature rain.
6. “What’s Your Name?” (produced by Will.I.Am.) – A “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” synth thunders in on the album’s starkest song, featuring pick-up line aficionado (and producer) Will.I.Am.
7. “Prayer For You” (interlude) – The littlest Usher Raymond makes a cameo in this interlude. Ush asks “You want to say something to people?” before Lil Ush bawls for a while, then Usher quips “Do I sound that bad?” The harp is a slightly over-the-top touch, but Ush outlines all he wants for his child and for himself as a parent as he promises to always be there.
8. “Something Special” (produced by Jermaine Dupri) – After seven tracks of straight-up R&B, this acoustic guitar line with the Stevie Wonder feel comes at the perfect moment. Usher’s obviously nodding at the greats as he drops “Here My Dear” into his lyrics, and proves that he doesn’t need all the bells and whistles with pipes like his.
9. “Love You Gently” (produced by Dre & Vidal) – So intimate it almost induces cringing, Usher’s lady tells him “it’s been a long time” before asking for some foreplay. Usher obliges by putting on some Sade and pledging to “love you gently.” It’s a fairly stark track, with the exception of twinkling keys and a many-Ushered chorus as he repeats the truly uncomfortable refrain, “light as a feather, hard as a rock.”
10. “Best Thing” featuring Jay-Z (produced by Jermaine Dupri) – On the album’s second Jermaine Dupri-produced track, Jay opens the track up beautifully, but seems to lose focus during his second appearance. Stop-start synths score points for inventive instrumentation, and the track harkens back to the Native Tongues collective and‘90s backpack hip-hop. Ush apologizes for acting tough when his friends are around, and confesses that when his lady left, she took the best thing.
11. “Before I Met You” (produced by Bryan Cox) – R&B bigwig Bryan Cox (Mariah Carey) produces this confessional track, a bass-n-drums affair that would overwhelm a lesser singer. Lyrically, Usher outlines the ways he’s grown up for his lady, giving credence to some of the honesty Usher’s made reference to in recent interviews.
12. “His Mistakes” (produced by Stargate) – What salvages this would-be pedestrian piano ballad from lame-itude is the emotional angle it takes: Usher discusses the man who came before him in his lady’s life. “Do I remind you of the pain he put you through?” As strings swell, Usher pours his heart out, explaining he’ll love his lady, but he refuses to pay for Previous Dude’s mistakes.
13. “Appetite” (produced by Danja) – For our money, the most interesting track on the album both lyrically and musically. After twelve songs, many of which describe the unending contentedness Usher’s found with his woman, Usher explains the constant temptation he’s subjected to – in chat rooms and during flight delays. A fluttering synth kicks in following Usher’s statement that this “is a true story,” he’s “simply got an appetite for the ladies.”
14. “What’s A Man To Do” (produced by Stargate) – In yet another song where Usher’s struggling with fidelity, he’s accompanied by what sounds like some type of Indian music sample and an acoustic guitar. A woman sings scales and eventually harmonizes with Usher as he explains “My heart is in two different places, my love has two different faces.”
15. “Lifetime” (produced by James “JLack” Lackey) – Stuttering drums and ethereal synths accompany Usher as he does his best, warmest Stevie. As you could probably imagine, the song promises to pledge – you guessed it – a lifetime to his lady.
16. “Love In This Club Part II” featuring Beyonce and Lil Wayne (produced by Soundz) – Part Deux! Queen B and Usher trade verses as they discuss how they’re both committed to others, but there must be a reason they both find themselves in the same club, on the same night. Weezy makes an appearance and even sings a bit, sounding like a sizzurped Billie Holiday.
17. “Here I Stand” (produced by Dre & Vidal) – As much a mission statement as we get from Usher on this album, its fitting that his voice is lower and clearer than on any other track. The warm tones, echoing synths and lower registers give the song an earthy, honest feel.
18. Hidden Track: “Will Work For Love” (produced by JR Rotem) – Usher plays humble with a driving piano as he sings his heart out on this prayer-like ballad. Though slightly over-the-top, Usher imparts a truly important message: he does it for the love.