By JON PARELES
“Here I Stand”
What do women want? Usher knows what works in the suave come-ons that have made him the male R&B sex symbol for a generation. His voice splices Michael Jackson’s insistence to Stevie Wonder’s melismatic turns; his songs are macho enough for hip-hop collaborations, but he’d rather seduce than battle. “This ain’t sex,” he insists over a sparse, Prince-flavored vamp on “Here I Stand,” his fifth studio album. “This is a symbol of the true makings of love.”
Usher decided that women appreciate not only confidence, sensual skills and fidelity, but also vulnerability, an aura of truthfulness and, if necessary, a promise to reform. Four years after releasing the multimillion-selling “Confessions,” he brings all those to “Here I Stand,” the first album he has made as a husband and a father; his son, Usher Raymond V, was born in November.
The album seesaws between Usher’s old ladies’-man instincts and his current commitment. Two versions of “Love in This Club” propose sex in public: one with pulsating synthesizer chords and Young Jeezy rapping, one a dialogue with a hesitant but willing Beyoncé — she sings: “You must be crazy/I got a man, you got a lady” — punctuated by a slurred, satisfied rap from Lil Wayne.
Usher insists, in the title song and “Before I Met You,” that the days are over when he “had a new one every night and sometimes I had two.” He strives for husbandly allure in slow-motion ballads: “Love You Gently” and the role-reversing “Trading Places,” in which he calls for her to be the aggressive one and offers to make breakfast the next morning.
But tension, not bliss, creates the album’s best songs. In “Moving Mountains,” a collaboration with C. (Tricky) Stewart and Terius (The-Dream) Nash, he’s trapped in a romance gone cold. In “His Mistakes” he warns his lover to stop expecting the worst from him after another man’s abuses. And over minor chords and sparse, programmed tracks in “Appetite” and “What’s a Man To Do,” he grapples with his urges to stray. For once he’s saying things a partner may not want to hear.