Judging by the indolent reception of Usher’s performance at this year’s American Fashion Awards afterparty, you’d think the 22 year-young multi-platinum phenom was washed up. The crowd listlessly meandered around the room, sipping Cristal and popping cherries as if the night’s entertainment was being pumped in from the speakers of some second-rate Jersey Shore DJ. Imagine my wonder, then, when the pant-dropping crooner’s new smash, “U Remind Me,” made a swift ascent up the pop and R&B charts a few weeks later. Perhaps due to its instantly recognizable hook and admirable exploration of a conflicted emotional terrain (“I relayed her ignorance to you/Wish I knew how to separate the two”), the single has become one of the most savory hits of the summer, satiating the everyman and fashionista alike. The track will undoubtedly be the first in a string of R&B hits from Usher’s fourth album, 8701 (named in honor of the 14-year gap between today and 1987, the year he discovered music).
Usher’s confessed influences resound clearly on the album; several collaborations with veterans Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis sound like bona fide Janet Jackson tracks (hell, even the album’s packaging recalls Janet’s The Velvet Rope). Jam & Lewis stamp their distinctive style on tracks like the partly-organic “Twork It Out” and the sweet ballad “Can U Help Me,” complete with finger-snap drum programming and piano-driven melodies. “Twork” displays nearly every misogynistic cliché in hip-hop, yet Usher injects his sex with a warm vulnerability that elludes the likes of R. Kelly and Ginuwine. “How Do I Say” ruminates on an emotionally and culturally-induced language barrier and even hints at a risqué bilingual interaction but, thankfully, Usher never resorts to predictable attempts at come-hither Spanglish.
While the album’s song titles are so similar that it’s often hard to distinguish one from the next, the rock-metabolized “I Can’t Let U Go” and the percussive “U R the One” more than differentiate the R&B blur. Production team The Neptunes seem to bring out the other Jackson in Usher, bolstering falsetto vocal bridges on “I Don’t Know” and “U Don’t Have to Call” that are undeniably Pop Royalty. Likewise, acoustic guitar work, live drums by Stokley of Mint Condition (remember them?), and a cameo by the law-brushing P. Diddy (“If making hits is a crime, I plead guilty”) also lend a surprising amount of variety to what could have been an otherwise homogenized set.