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Usher's Here I Stand CD

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USHER 2.0/ One of the Last Big Pop Stars Tries Adulthood.
No catharsis here: Usher has stripped out the pain audible in the work of so many great male soul singers.


Usher's new album, Here I Stand, is the work of a newlywed. The challenge here is to convince us that he is a married and responsible man--grown and sexy, as R. & B. for people over thirty has come to be called--without sacrificing the louche, frictionless sense of play that made him famous. Now the singer whose catalogue is based on cheating, flirting, breaking up, and apologizing is forced to stay in place, to rhyme with his press kit, and the dissonance undoes his modest gifts.

Yeah; Usher's 2004 album, Confessions, which has sold nine and a half million copies, may turn out to have been the last true blockbuster in pop music. Since 2000, only five albums have sold more copies. Confessions sold 1.1 million in its first week, and contained four No. 1 singles. For a while, Confessions was pop music. Nine and a half million was a big number even in 2004; now, in a music market whose rules are changing by the day, it's the new eleventy billion.

Usher was brought up to succeed in pop music the way some kids are brought up to compete in the Olympics--very different from an artist stumbling on his own voice by dint of involuntary, obsessive experiment. Everything about his output seems to have come from a focus group, including his abdominal muscles. Brought to Atlanta from Chattanooga by his manager-mother, Jonetta Patton, he was signed at the age of fourteen and ended up in New York as the youngest member of the entertainment battalion led by Sean Combs.

He started releasing records at fifteen, and though he is filed first as an R. & B. artist, he is equally well known for singing feathery ballads that fit into the genre inaccurately named Adult Contemporary. His songs balance on a moral and formal fulcrum: salacious stories and club beats over here, vows to reform and slow, throaty singing over there. It's the Saturday-night, Sunday-morning dichotomy.

His records are fun the way pop music is fun; they share the same contours, priorities, and boundaries. The pleasures are rarely raw, surprising, or complex, but they are reliable, and there is an easy glow in the sureness of the execution. A reasonably attractive, small man with very little body fat, he is a nimble but anonymous singer and a fantastically crisp, even fussy, dancer.

Usher's songs strive for as wide a demographic as possible, and his personal story--as recounted endlessly in entertainment magazines--hews to whatever product he is currently hawking. His memories are market-based. Speaking to a reporter in 2004 about his friend David Beckham, Usher said, “He's great at what he does. His P.R. is great," as if the two might be indistinguishable. When confronted, in the same interview, with rumors that Beckham had possibly cheated on his wife, Usher responded, “He's cheating on her? That happens, man.

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