Soul Man: Revisiting Usher’s “Here I Stand”

After the jump is a slight edit of a review of Usher’s Here I Stand – an album I have tremendous respect for, so much so that I thought was the best black pop album of 2008 –  that I initially wrote for Popmatters.com a few years ago that was never published.

I liked the review so I wanted to share it.

Here I Stand album cover

Everyone talks about Michael Jackson’s influence on Usher and forgets that Usher has been quite candid about the influence of Bobby Brown on his career. And interestingly enough, the Brown influences predominate in Usher’s work and public persona in a way that the Mike influences simply do not.

In short, Usher, like Brown before him, is a soulman.

But Usher’s career mirrors Brown’s in another important way that quite striking: His fifth album, Here I Stand, failed to capitalize on (and expand upon) his commercial breakthrough with Confessions, in much the same way Bobby ended up being much less commercially successful than Don’t Be Cruel.

And Here I Stand failed for pretty much the same reason Bobby did – it took too damn long to come out and Usher got married in a high-profile way that made fans mad. People didn’t buy Here I Stand because they really didn’t like Ursh’s ex-wife. And they damned sure didn’t want to hear a 70+ minute love letter to her.

Which is really too bad because Here I Stand is arguably Usher’s most complete album statement to date.

Ursh spends the first couple of tracks getting the easy stuff out of the way – “This Ain’t Sex” thumps with the best of his past bangers; “Moving Mountains” updates the slow burn of, um, “Burn” and “U Got It Bad” with some strange, but affecting, melodrama; and “Trading Places” is as dirty as it is thrilling (the vocalizing at the end is downright brilliant).

These songs are all great, but they don’t represent what Usher is really interested in doing – exploring deeper emotions and getting in touch with a vulnerable side we’ve never seen before. With the one-two punch of “Something Special” and “Love You Gently,” Usher does just that and, in the process, convincingly reinvents himself as the stone-cold soul loverman that many have been waiting for him to be.

“Something Special” reunites Jermaine Dupri with his 90s songwriting partner, Manuel Seal (responsible for all that terrific songwriting on the Xscape and Mariah Carey albums) and the two create a touching paean to the feeling that love conquers all. But without the maudlin sentiment that that sentence intimates.

As good as that song is, “Love You Gently” is better. Much much better. Philly soul geniuses, Dre & Vidal, write a deeply romantic song that gives Usher the opportunity to show just how effectively he can use the full range of his voice. There are hints of Donny Hathaway and Luther Vandross in his approach to this song, as there is a delicacy – a precision – in his singing that he has never used quite this way, quite this well.

Here I Stand continues building on romantic themes in a wide array of musical formats that keep things moving and showcase the sheer beauty of Usher’s voice. So by the time you work your way through Ne-Yo’s beautiful “His Mistakes,” “What’s A Man To Do,” “Lifetime,” “Revolver” (easily the best uptempo on the album), and finish up with gorgeous title track, all your assumptions about who Usher is and what he is capable of are gone*.

Sure, “Best Thing” sounds like exactly what it is – two dudes talking to each other about how dope wifey is without saying anything that might betray real vulnerability. And sure, “What’s Your Name” and “Appetite” are complete throwaways and the less said about lead single’s “Love In This Club,” shameless attempt to one-up “Yeah!” (and failing), the better. But none of this really detracts from the fact everything else is damn near perfect, that Here I Stand really does represent a huge step in the evolution of perhaps the greatest pop soul artist since…well, Bobby Brown.

That his core audience didn’t respond to the album with the same fervor as they did to Confessions says so much more about how fickle (and unrealistically possessive) the record-buying public can be than it does about the quality of the music on the album, which is consistently high.

It is truly a shame that Here I Stand’s commercial failure so spooked Usher that he made Raymond v. Raymond and Versus – two albums that would be beneath his talent even if he had never recorded and released Here I Stand – and has, seemingly, abandoned his inner soulman.

But make no mistake – Here I Stand is a brilliant album that will only get better with time. People will revisit it and marvel that they didn’t appreciate it when it was initially released.

 

*Even the songs left off the album give you straight soul, no chaser.  Check out “Love Looks Good,” and especially, “Forever Young” (which appears in a shortened version as the official album’s intro).

2 thoughts on “Soul Man: Revisiting Usher’s “Here I Stand”

  1. PBG

    Ok, ok. I’ll go back and listen again. I am one of the folks who did buy this album, but I do admit to having some “feelings” about it for the very reasons you stated. What did you think about the title track? That was my favorite song on the album.

    Reply

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