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Usher battles his dark side, but his heart's not in it

NEW YORK - MARCH 24: Singer Usher visits BET's "106 & Park" at BET Studios on March 24, 2010 in New York City.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Raymond v. Raymond

  • Usher
  • Jive/LaFace

Let's start with the gossip. Last year, Usher Raymond IV - known to R&B fans simply as Usher - divorced his wife of nearly two years, Tameka Foster. He later told interviewers that Raymond V. Raymond was inspired by Kramer Vs. Kramer, 1979 Dustin Hoffman drama about a contentious custody battle, and he preceded the album with a single called Papers, which was about filing for divorce.

But if that leaves you expecting Raymond V. Raymond to be all about how his marriage went wrong, guess again.

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Despite the promise of his album-opening statement that "There's three sides to every story: There's the one side, there's the other, and then there's the truth," Usher doesn't show much interest in presenting either Tameka's side or the truth about their home life. Instead, Raymond V. Raymond finds Usher fighting with himself, trying to reconcile his reputation as an ever-ready sex machine with his desire to be a good husband and father.

In a sense, it picks up where Confessions, his biggest hit to date, left off in 2004. Like that album (which was inspired by his breakup with TLC singer Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas), Raymond mixes anguished, soulful slow jams with aggressive, bass-pumping dance songs, as if trying to balance each mea culpa with a quick "let's party."

Trouble is, Usher doesn't seem to feel all that culpable. Although Foolin' Around builds its refrain around Usher's recognition that his infidelities pained his wife, instead of promising to change his ways he simply shrugs. "Guess it's just the man I am," he croons. "Blame it on celebrity."

In other words, Usher knows he's catnip to women, and feels it'd be rude to turn them down.

On the flip side, there's the lover-man guise he assumes for his dance songs, in which Usher is game for anything: a quick fling, a piece on the side, a ménage à trois (or as he puts it, "a muh-na-jay"). The poor guy is up to his neck in girls, at one point sighing, "Asian, Caucasian, Haitian, Jamaican, Brazilian, I swear I got a million."

Of course, Usher is hardly the first R&B singer to define himself as a sexual dynamo. But however much his braggadocio energizes the beats pulsing beneath Lil Freak or the Jamaican-inflected She Don't Know, by over-emphasizing his image Usher ultimately diminishes the songs themselves.

When he's honest about his anguish, as on the ambitious Monstar (a blend of "monster" and "superstar"), Usher makes us care about the outcome of Raymond V. Raymond. But when he allows himself to become a cartoon, as on the horny Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home), the only thing we could possibly care about is the beat.

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