The songs on Usher’s sixth album, Raymond v. Raymond, are supposed to be inspired by his recent divorce, and the singer has done his best to hype the album as a racy tell-all in the model of his blockbuster Confessions. “Monstar” opens with Usher promising to tell both sides of his story and, eventually, the truth, but beyond a few numbingly literal verses in songs like “Papers” and “Guilty,” there’s little narrative to follow. Mostly, Raymond plays out like any Usher album before it, with moody love-makin’ ballads competing for space with club-ready cuts. That Usher didn’t end up making his Here, My Dear isn’t that much of a surprise: Up to this point, the man has made a career out of steadfastly refusing to change up his game, and, as usual, the appeal of the album lies with his versatile but always ultra-smooth singing.
But even listeners prepared to forgive Usher for promising risk while playing it safe will be put off by the generally low quality of the songwriting here. “Mars vs. Venus” is the only slower number that holds up to repeat listens; more representative are “Foolin’ Around” and “Making Love (Into the Night),” by-the-numbers ballads that are as generic as their titles. Meanwhile, “So Many Girls” and “Okay” get dragged down by their aggressively dumb lyrics. Often, Usher’s impassioned singing is about the only argument for the tracks on Raymond, but goofy throwaway lines like “I suggest we take this here home/So we can make a love song/I could be the best part of your waking up” actually come off worse when delivered so earnestly.
“Monstar” impresses with an eerie synthesizer vamp and an achingly raw vocal turn, and “Guilty” adds some much-needed propulsion to the album’s slow jam-heavy second half. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick highlights, though there are certainly some notable low points: the sappy “There Goes My Baby” is one; Will.I.Am stinking up “OMG” with Auto-Tuned banality is another. Even the potential singles are just less fun this time around (not that the actual singles have made much impact on the charts).
When Ludacris contributes his listless guest verse to the horn-driven “She Don’t Know,” it’s impossible not to think back to “Yeah!” and the days when both performers sounded far more vital and engaging than they do today. It’s not like Confessions was a front-to-back classic, but even calling Raymond inconsistent pays it too high of a compliment: The album is consistently uninspired, with each song showcasing an incredibly gifted performer grown wearyingly complacent.