By Sean Fennessey
We don't tell pop stars how to age gracefully, but perhaps we should. It's been five months since the release of Usher's sixth album, "Raymond v. Raymond" - which crossed the platinum benchmark just last week - and at 31 he's at a curious moment in his career. Five years ago, his brilliantly vulnerable 2004 release, "Confessions," became the last album to cross the RIAA's 10 million-selling threshold, earning a diamond certification. But that was then, when the turmoil of young adulthood and falling out of love was rich and present. Today, Usher has crossed the 30 threshold and is divorced and enormously wealthy, if less popular. He should be transitioning to that very particular moment in a loverman's career: smooth R&B.
But "Versus," a sort of stop-gap EP, instead finds him in Peter Pan mode, digging for remnants of a younger self that never existed. "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" is his first collaboration with Sweden's teen pop overlord, Max Martin. He raps, perhaps inspired by young heir apparent Trey Songz, for the first time on "Get in My Car." And what would a lunge for youth be without an appearance from Justin Bieber? The child-god's "Somebody to Love" is remixed here with a new verse and "Get 'em, J.B." encouragement from Usher, his mentor. These are crass moves, mostly, and they rarely work because Usher works best in emotional hailstorms, not candy rain.
There is one song included from "Raymond v. Raymond," the splayed "There Goes My Baby." It's a rare straight ballad for Usher, whose thin, high tenor wasn't built for languor. But it's an amazingly rending song, and a hit, too. So why does everything else here - excepting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's adorably old-fashioned "Lingerie" - sound like it was recorded in an arcade? Maybe it's best we don't tell an aging man his business.
Recommended tracks: "Somebody to Love (Remix)," "There Goes My Baby"