When a guy puts his newborn son’s gurgling noises on his album, it’s clear where his mind has shifted: Usher don’t wanna be a player no more. Settling down, as he’s done recently in real life, has that effect. So the foreplay that was 2004’s nearly diamond-selling Confessions mellows out to a more seasoned and tasteful fifth disc for Mr. Raymond, who turns 30 this year. Enter midlife observations and refined ballads made for dancing cheek-to-cheek. Exit unfaithful youth.
Like Confessions on sedatives, Here I Stand is a toned-down version of the Usher we know and love (unless, perhaps, you’re Chilli). Singing of the transition that every man-child experiences, the bad-boy-gone-good reproves his juvenile bachelor choices—the wild lifestyle kids don’t think of their parents as having had. Sex is still prominent, but it’s the kind not involving threesomes or infidelity or unplanned pregnancies that might later warrant admissions of guilt. “This Ain’t Sex,” while conjuring a disco-era MJ in all his sequined-bodysuit glory, speaks of sex as a privileged act between two consenting adults: “We ain’t having sex/We’re making moments that will outlast the world.” Whatever, you can dance to it.
Lovemaking (not sex!) also preoccupies the Polow Da Don–crafted chart-topper “Love in This Club.” And with a submission of the Robin Thicke variety, the guitar-assisted “Trading Places” praises the woman-on-top philosophy: “You gon’ pay for dinner/Take me to see a movie/And whisper in my ear how much you wanna do me.” A few falsetto orgasms later, Usher continues atoning for past mistakes and Stevie-Wonders it up a bit on the stark piano ballads. It’s the laying of more Xeroxed blueprints for younger maestros to continue replicating.
Blessed with that rare thing called talent, Usher has always had a strong voice that can easily drift from wavering tenor to fine-tuned falsetto, one that at times sounds convincingly urgent—burning, even. Here, it’s the Tricky Stewart soarer “Moving Mountains” that finds his words waterfalling over scattered synths (those ones TimbaLake started a trend with): “I know sorry just wouldn’t do it/My heart is obliterated/I’m tryna travel through/But it’s like moving mountains.” For the pretty bad “Best Thing,” Jay-Z supplies another of his eh guest verses amid other so-so mood-setters.
A little too sitting-on-the-dock-of-the-bay for Chris Breezy–trained earbuds, perhaps, Here I Stand is pure grown-man bidness. Not saying he’s gone all Lionel Richie on us; just don’t be surprised to see him electric-sliding at Diddy’s next White Party.