Usher's latest friskier but mostly lackluster
By USA Today critics
USHER, "Raymond v. Raymond"
Fans keeping track of the copious drama in Usher's personal life expected this sixth studio album to percolate with the revealing and dishy romantic turmoil that permeated 2004's "Confessions."
"Raymond v. Raymond" does appear to milk the singer's recent divorce from Tameka Foster in marital-meltdown "Papers" and cheater's plaint "Foolin' Around," which finds him admitting, "I know I vowed to never do this again, but it seems to be the only thing I'm good at."
Usher used to be good at crooning slyly libidinous slow jams and dance-tastic hits, like crunk treat "Yeah." But the bulk of these 14 tracks traffic in lusty yet lackluster R&B jams lazily strewn with ooohs, grunts and generic club beats.
Returning from 2008's commercially disappointing "Here I Stand," a sober, ballad-heavy take on marriage and parenthood, Usher, 31, reverts to a friskier posture, and his true nature seems to evaporate in the process. Too slick to titillate, "So Many Girls," "Pro Lover" and similar sex-charged teasers feel rehashed and inauthentic, seldom accentuating the singer's charismatic personal or vocal strengths.
"There Goes My Baby," boasting a charming falsetto, and the introspective "Papers" are smooth, mature exceptions. Elsewhere, Usher seems disengaged, allowing will.i.am to bludgeon "OMG" with Auto-Tune (the plague continues). Ludacris outshines him on "She Don't Know"; T.I. steals the thunder on "Guilty". Usher is reduced to vocal wallpaper on standout track "Lil Freak," a sleek composite of Stevie Wonder's sampled "Living for the City," Nicki Minaj's sassy rap and the sputtering rhythms of producer "Polow Da Don."
Download: "Lil Freak," "Monstar," "There Goes My Baby," "Papers"
Skip: "So Many Girls," "OMG"
Erykah Badu, "New Amerykah, Part 2: Return of the Ankh"
The live instrumentation on Badu's follow-up to 2008's "New Amerykah, Part 1: 4th World War," gives it a more organic feel than its synthesizer-fueled predecessor. And where the first dealt with conflict on a grand scale, Badu focuses here on more intimate struggles. The moody, soulful ambience complements Badu's insightful lyrics and mesmerizing vocals.
Download: "Window Seat," "Out My Mind/Just in Time"
Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, "Wu Massacre"
This Wu Tang Clan subset is fierce and focused, firing steel-jacketed barbs with abandon on this wallop-packing collection. They weave vivid tales with colorful characters and stark scenarios. Those tales, often laced with grim humor, spin out over a rich, sonic tapestry provided by producers Scram Jones, RZA and Allah Mathematics.
Download: "Our Dreams," "Miranda," "Youngstown Heist"
V.V. Brown, "Travelling Like the Light"
Yet another soul-inspired songbird has arrived from across the pond, and this one is as cool and clever as she is sassy. Her debut album reveals both a knack for killer hooks and, vocally, a rare mix of power and grace. Wielding her precocious authority without pomp or petulance, Brown turns romantic frustration into fodder for exhilarating music.
Download: "Shark in the Water," "Back in Time, Leave!"