This generation's celebrities are terrible at reclaiming their stories. Vows to fight back against gossip outlets and the bloodthirsty public result in tell-alls that tell little, on-camera sniveling about the perils of being on camera (see authorized documentaries of Paris Hilton or Britney Spears), and harrowing continuations of the cycle of abuse (Tila "O.M.G. of All Media" Tequila now has a gossip blog?!?). No surprises, though: Shit happens when self-service is the primary motivation for expression. And that's when people are actually trying — on his sixth album, Usher's not even going that far.
An apparent reference to his much-discussed divorce from Tameka Foster, the title of Raymond v. Raymond would have you believe that Usher is returning to the pseudo-soul-baring that helped him sell 10 million U.S. copies of 2004's Confessions (and moving away from the relative failure that was 2008's Here I Stand). But the result rarely lives up to that promise. The achingly bittersweet first single, "Papers," with its sad little ringtone of a synth line that makes five years ago seem an era away, is Raymond's height of explicitness, and even then, he's telling us what we already know: "I done damn near lost my mama/I done been through so much drama." There are fleeting references to infidelity (he bizarrely laments his own cheating on Jermaine Dupri's sole production offering, "Foolin' Around": "I don't understand why you wanna be with this kind of man!") and a weird courtroom drama about irreconcilable differences called "Guilty." But really, that's where the confessing stops. Here, My Dear this isn't.
Perhaps this show-and-no-tell is Usher lying to us to reenergize his career. Perhaps it's something more diabolical, a smoke-and-mirrors exploitation to dupe those who care too much about his personal life into buying music that barely mentions it. Either way, he's too occupied to explain: Raymond mostly explores its hero's status as a gay divorcé (no homo, as far as we can tell). "Not just a player, I'm a pro... lover" he sings on "Pro Lover," Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' reggae-lite response (a revoke, really) to Dawn Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)." There's "So Many Girls," standard Danja house that finds Usher at a club with... a lot of girls. In James Lackey's hazy-as-dawn "Okay," Usher attempts to pick up a chick by offering to replace her Folgers: "I could be the best part of you waking up." It is a bold claim, to say the least. At least "Lil Freak" spices up this Lothario trope with almost scary dominance: Usher bosses around a groupie ("If you comin' with me, really comin' with me/You let her put her hands in your pants, be my little freak") while Nicki Minaj chips in with the inclusive lesbian fantasy she was born (or at least named) to embody.
These tracks are like pickup lines: Their immediate success varies, but none is particularly memorable (although Polow da Don's "Freak" impressively sports brass that's more liquid-seeming than KY, as well as a Moog line from Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City"). It's no shock when our host shows up in the musical equivalent of Ed Hardy: a will.i.am-produced house track called "OMG." But the irony of this hobnobbing is that Usher, paragon of competence that he is, sounds best in more intimate settings. "Mars vs. Venus" not only cements John Gray's weird legacy as an urban-music reference but finds Jam and Lewis at their spaciest since Janet Jackson's "When We Ooo," folding the singer's dramatic exhalations into the richocheting rhythm track.
The single "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)" is as close to perfection as Raymond gets, sounding classic without bombast, the same way "My Boo" or "Burn" did. It's a throbbing midtempo track that sports a thick, Whitesnake-esque synth line and a booming low-end as enticing as the bottom Usher's ordering someone to poke up in the air; these layers of sound are removed and applied like some wishy-washy striptease. His insistent croon can sound like a whine, but here and on the stunning album closer, "Making Love (Into the Night)" — which interpolates Benny Mardones' AC staple "Into the Night," of all things — he sounds sweetly tender, urgently concerned about his object of (momentary?) fixation. In short, he sounds like the kind of guy you want to take home and never let leave.
It's clichéd and redundant, in an iTuned world, to point out that a noncohesive album is actually just a collection of singles, but Raymond v. Raymond seems like the utmost example of this approach. Five songs have already been released separately (six, if you count the iTunes bonus cut, "More"), and 11 producers or production teams are spread over the standard disc's 14 tracks. Like a once-caged bird, it's all over the place. Maybe the album's theme isn't so divorced from Usher's life, after all: For both of them right now, single is the word.