Usher's transition from teen sensation to 30-something mogul has been relatively painless, aside from his recent divorce. However, until "Raymond v. Raymond" (LaFace / Jive), it wasn't clear how grown Usher was going to come to terms with being grown.
Now we know. "Raymond v. Raymond" craftily mixes hot beats from the likes of will.i.am, Jermaine Dupri and Danja with more adult concerns, though Usher remains interested in finding love in any number of clubs.
PHOTOS: Usher through the years
The single "Papers" pairs tales of marital strife with playful synths, somehow turning signing divorce papers into a soulful club-banger. "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)" offers the flip side, a shimmering pop-soul slice of marital bliss, where he declares, "I know you've been waiting for this lovin' all day," over a laid-back groove.
The blaring synths of "She Don't Know" sound fresh, especially once Ludacris' playful verse kicks in, while "Guilty" sounds like a throwback to the multiplatinum "Confessions" album until T.I. kicks it to a new level.
"Raymond v. Raymond's" problems come when Usher forgets his age. The AutoTuned "OMG," produced by will.i.am, simply chases a trendy sound that would be better-suited to Usher protege Justin Bieber, while the super-serious "Mars vs. Venus" feels more like a doctoral thesis than a pop song.
But when Usher can make a sexed-up version of Benny Mardones' 1980 hit "Into the Night" sound new, while still showing off how well his voice has matured, it's pretty clear he's hit his stride once again.
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"Raymond v. Raymond"
THE GRADE B
BOTTOM LINE Grown-up R&B with grown-up problems