Usher replaces R. Kelly as king of R&B

May 27, 2008


Whatever the outcome of his trial on charges of making child pornography, R. Kelly is overdue to relinquish the crown that he's worn as the king of R&B since the mid-'90s.

Kelly's supple voice and unique ear for melody have lost little of their power. But his sexually obsessed lyrics had become ludicrous long before the midget got "Trapped in the Closet," while his current single "Hair Braider" is simply inane. ("Hairbraider huh, I'm doin' my hairbraider / And she do my hair so good that I'm gonna tip her.")

His particular proclivities aside, it's increasingly difficult to accept the self-proclaimed "Pied Piper" as an irresistible heartthrob, if for no other reason than the fact that he's now 41. Hence the obvious question: Who will become the new godfather of R&B?

Not yet 20, Chris Brown has matured a lot since he first appeared on the scene at age 13. But he still has only two albums to his credit, and he's yet to show the range or depth necessary to match Kelly's accomplishments.

Ne-Yo has his champions -- including, unintentionally, Kelly himself. (Ne-Yo has claimed that Kelly dropped him from the Double Up Tour because the older artist was threatened by the young performer's appeal.) But his voice isn't even as strong as Brown's.

On the strength of the numbers, Usher is the only serious contender. His last album "Confessions" (2004) sold more than 9.5 million copies in the United States; in comparison, Kelly's bestselling disc sold 8 million in 1998, before digital downloading was even a consideration. But for all of the talk of "Confessions" charting the split between the Atlanta singer and Rozonda "Chili" Thomas of TLC, Usher never really bared his soul or told us much about the human condition on that disc; it was more lunchroom gossip than serious self-examination. He needed to grow up.

During the long wait for his new music, the artist starred on Broadway in the hit musical "Chicago," fired his mother, replaced her as manager with veteran Benny Medina (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez) and married his former stylist, Tameka Foster, eight years his senior and already the mother of three before she gave birth to their son, Usher Raymond V. Now 29, the boy has become a man, and that's the theme of his fifth album, "Here I Stand," which arrives in stores today.

"The manhood is symbolic of a type of independence, as well as a desire to communicate with his fans on a different emotional level," Medina told the trade magazine Billboard. "This isn't just a record for him. This is a component and an extension of a personal journey."

To that end, Usher explores a much wider range of emotions and topics than he has on previous discs, or than Kelly has at any point in his career.

Yes, there are the party jams -- chief among them the synth-driven No. 1 hit single produced by Polow Da Don, "Love in This Club" -- and sure, there are the requisite hot 'n' horny bedroom grooves, which veer between absurd claims for carnal spirituality and Kelly-like crassness. "We're not having sex, we're making moments that will outlast the world," Usher croons in "This Ain't Sex," while "Trading Places" devolves from a debate over who claims what position to innuendo-laden culinary silliness reminiscent of Kelly's "Sex in the Kitchen" ("Pancakes and eggs, I owe ya breakfast in bed, oh baby / And your orange juice sitting on the coaster," Usher sings. "Skip dinner and we gonna rent a movie / You order Chinese food right before you do me / You comin' on strong baby, let me wash me hands.").

"Sex sells. I understand it; I'm a product of it. But at the same time there has to be something else, something that balances the scale out, something of substance," Usher told an Australian newspaper, and far more nourishing are songs such as "Prayer for You (Interlude)," which finds him singing to his young son; the Jermaine Dupri-produced "Something Special," a gleefully optimistic piece of Wonder-style pop; the slyly experimental, electro-tinged ballads "Moving Mountains" and "Lifetime" and the old-school slow jam "Love You Gently," which finds Usher invoking the giants of the genre -- "I've got that Sade, Al Green and Marvin Gaye, too / To love you gently" -- and actually holding his own in comparison.

Through it all runs a voice that has become more self-assured and adventurous, paired with a charismatic sex appeal all the more potent for its new subtlety. ("This album doesn't call for me to have my shirt off," Usher has said, but that doesn't mean he no longer has killer abs.)

"Here I Stand" isn't a home run; no album with lyrics like those on "Trading Places" or a gratuitous cameo by (on "What's My Name?") could be.

But it certainly adds to the argument that "Same Girl," the 2007 Kelly/Usher collaboration, was in fact a passing of the torch.