Raymond v. Raymond, Usher's latest studio album, shows an artist at a serious crossroads both personally and professionally. As he recovers from his divorce with Tameka Foster, not only must he decide how he wants to cope with the situation behind closed doors, but also in his music (if at all). Herein lies the focus of Raymond v. Raymond, billed as an introspective and emotional album describing Usher's struggles and recovery. As a central concept of an R&B album, this would work perfectly, if executed properly. Unfortunately for Usher though, he is unable to channel his emotions into an entire record, so instead, we are left with two separate records for two separate moods-- with both jockeying for position inside Usher's head, and throughout the entirety of Raymond v. Raymond as well.
What's most surprising about the album is Usher's struggle for relevance, and his appearance of being out of place. In 2005, he was a worldwide superstar, fresh off of the platinum-selling Confessions. Whether laying down heartfelt R&B tunes, or energetic radio hits like "Yeah!" it appeared he could do no wrong. But here, that same artist can hardly find his bearings. Tracks like "So Many Girls" and "OMG" are supposed to be club bangers on par with the best of his past work, yet they fail miserably due to schizophrenic switches in subject matter (depressed, to player and back) and overly cliched lyrics. The worst case of this can be found on "She Don't Know," a track which is already forced and awkward enough before Ludacris's unfortunate appearance. Like everything else Luda touches, the song seems like it's stuck in 2004, and that effect begins to rub off on Usher and the rest of the album, too.
Beyond these major missteps, there are some bright spots as well. "Pro Lover" is one of the collection's best pieces, juxtaposing Usher's smooth vocals over a beat that sounds slightly borrowed from Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E." (but all for the better). It's unfortunate that it takes until the eighth track for Usher to appear completely natural and honest, but the break from the cheesy womanizer we saw earlier is most welcome. Continuing in the more toned-down, heartfelt theme, "Foolin' Around" scores this album's version of "Burn" as Usher further opens up about his feelings surrounding the divorce. Between those two tracks, and 2009 single "Papers," it's obvious that this album could have ran completely on more unforced and honest R&B. The question is why didn't it?
As mentioned earlier, by the end of Raymond v. Raymond, we're really not sure which Usher we're getting a glimpse at-- the crux of the record's difficulties. One minute he's full of remorse, the next he's setting up threesomes at the club (the actual theme of the Nicki Minaj-featured "Lil Freak"). Perhaps if these two personalities had been broken down into two halves (i.e. Beyonce's I Am... Sasha Fierce), the message would have been more workable for listeners. But, instead we see a bipolar artist, still unsure of who he is and how he should deal with his life or career. For all of our sakes, we should hope he gets ahold of both soon. Music would hate to see someone this talented just fall off the map.
Best Track: "Pro Lover"
[Previously on Animal Noises: Most Prolific Artists of the Decade: #11-20]