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Heartache gives Usher more depth

When I first heard the news that rapper Kanye West was the opening act for Usher's tour, I thought, "Ugh, why is Kanye touring with him?"

Admittedly, I had a grudge against Usher.

I was having difficulty forgiving the R&B superstar for his relationship transgressions.

And his huge ego. This is the guy who told Blender magazine this month that when he takes ladies back to his digs to seduce them, he plays his own music.

Perhaps Usher, 25, realized that lots of folks have been judging him for his misbehavior. Maybe that's why he titled his recent album Confessions.

If confession is good for the soul, it sure worked for Usher. The album, the singer's fourth, sold more than a million copies in its first week and hit the top of the charts out of the gate. Critics, too, have gone gaga for Confessions, whose tunes reference the recent breakup of Usher and TLC singer Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas.

Real-life hardship, especially when it's the fella who has been the louse, has always made for riveting music for soul singers. Just think of the heart-wrenching love songs sung by Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway, R&B's lovermen.

But I didn't think Usher had that kind of emotion and power in him. I was shocked when I learned to love Confessions.

The album begins deceptively with its only club jam, the delicious Yeah!. That thunderous bit of Southern crunk will get your fanny shaking, but it's the tunes that come afterward that let you in on Usher's power. He has graduated from the kiddie stuff to old school R&B vocals.

The aptly titled Throwback, with all of Usher's anguish-driven delivery, teems with regret. And Burn captures the ambivalence of relationships, especially those that should be over but aren't.

So what if Usher likes making love to his own music? And who cares that he told interviewers at the MTV Video Music Awards that he couldn't wait to go home and watch his own performances? (He had TiVo'd the show.)

If a guy's looking for a modern soul singer to play when he's trying to woo the ladies, he could do worse than Usher. As egotistical he is, Usher chooses wisely. Confessions has put him in the loverman league.

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There's not a lot of romance on The College Dropout, the powerful debut from producer-turned-rapper Kanye West. While he was busy putting together beats for artists Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and Ludacris, West, 27, was working tirelessly on an album of his own, and it's brimming with wit, playfulness and pathos.

If you know West only from his snazzy pink shirt at the recent MTV awards, you need to know that the rapper is a deep thinker. The College Dropout, named for West's abandoning of his own college career at an art school in Chicago, kicks off with the haunting We Don't Care, an indictment of mainstream America and the public school system's treatment of black youth.

The song details a young black child's lack of role models save for dope dealers, lack of encouragement from the school system and lack of after-school programs to keep kids on the straight and narrow.

The lyrics are brutal and angry:

We ain't retards the way teachers thought.

The song's refrain is chilling, especially since it's sung by a chorus of children:

We wasn't supposed to make it past 25

but the joke's on you, we still alive.

West searches his soul on the hit Jesus Walks, a gospel-tinged number in which he confesses, "I wanna talk to God, but I'm afraid 'cause we ain't spoke in so long." In West's spare time, incidentally, he designs jewelry, artistic images of Jesus rendered in chunky gold. But, his love of Christ, West knows, is not marketable in the world of hip-hop: "If I talk about God, my record won't get played, huh?"

On Breathe In/Breathe Out, West checks himself, and resigns:

Always said if I rapped I'd say something significant

But now I'm rappin' about money, 'hos and rims again.

West later points his finger at the bling-drenched hip-hop community for driving Benzes, saying the cars are "things we buy to cover up what's inside."

Sure, West's album is filled with glitzy beats and slick production. But it's packed with important messages you don't find in much radio rap these days. Ironically, with all of West's lambasting of the American public school system and his own stories of leaving behind the university life, The College Dropout may be one of this year's smartest albums.

Gina Vivinetto can be reached at (727) 893-8565 or ginasptimes.com.

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