Happy 10th Anniversary to Usher’s fifth studio album Here I Stand, originally released May 13, 2008.
A classic album can be a blessing and a burden. On one hand, classics solidify an artist's legacy like few other achievements. Popularity fades, and money can be spent as quickly as it's made. But timeless music survives for generations, living longer than musicians themselves. Classics boost how artists are remembered in the long run, but the albums can also limit how artists are viewed in the present. In the eyes of many fans, follow-up efforts have to live up to the standard set by their predecessors. This lens can alter a fan's view and make a strong project appear to be a letdown. For confirmation, look no further than Usher's Here I Stand, an album clouded by the shadow of Confessions.
When it comes to R&B, Confessions is a modern-day masterpiece. The substance of the lyrics and the passion heard in their delivery, the rich sound of the production and the polished vocals that lay over it—these elements all come together to form Usher's best project. The album's quality alone is a daunting standard, but its commercial success raises the bar to a height Yao Ming couldn't reach. Confessions spent nine weeks atop the Billboard 200 and sold over 10 million copies, a threshold crossed by very few artists. Add in the four # 1 singles spawned by the album and it's clear that Confessions, by almost any measure, is the ultimate success. Matching the album was a tall task, and topping it was impossible.
Confessions loomed large over the next phase of Usher's career, and so did his personal life. From a canceled wedding to severed business ties with his mother, Usher was in the news often leading up to the release of Here I Stand. The stories, along with his 2004 album, may have kept fans from judging Usher's new LP on its own merit. Yet, the things that distracted fans actually sharpened Usher's focus. Here I Stand isn't introspective from start to finish, but it still reflects who Usher was growing to be. His voice was the same and the sounds behind it were familiar, but Usher shared perspective that was born from the changes in his life.
His maturation stands out at the very start of the album. On the intro song, Usher sings over ominous, piano-based production. Fittingly, he begins by setting a gloomy scene, but then explains what provided him with hope. Usher says, "I've walked alone and felt as if no one cared / All the days so dark and dim / But it's like the rays of the sun somehow came down / To shine when you are around / And I always thought that I'd never find that one / To make me feel forever young."
These lyrics are words of relief. Before his marriage to Tameka Foster, Usher was R&B's favorite bachelor. Part of his appeal to women was the fantasy of being with him. But this fantasy seeped into Usher's reality, creating a fast-paced lifestyle that can make marriage seem more fictional than Wakanda. Stars like Usher can develop worries of never finding a life partner, so as Usher addresses Foster on the intro, he describes the solace she provided for him.
The intro to Here I Stand wasn't the first touching song Usher ever made. But what makes it unique is the vulnerability heard from him. While singing to tons of listeners, Usher admits to doubts and trials that some people would struggle to admit to themselves. He moves from the confidence of knowing who he wants to marry to the fear of not having that feeling reciprocated. The intro lasts less than 2 minutes, but its brevity doesn't limit how much it reveals about Usher.
Now, Usher does get sentimental at the album's start, but the LP doesn't turn into a wedding vow recital. The following song, "Love in This Club," describes the lifestyle that Usher was leaving behind during the album's release. Furthermore, it adds credence to the idea that you can say almost anything as long as you have a good singing voice. Most of us regular guys wouldn't think to say, "Hey, let's make love in this club." But Usher does a few riffs and suddenly a laughable idea becomes a hit song.
The Young Jeezy-featured cut served as the lead single for the album. The song is a sharp turn from the dark sound of the intro, calling the sequencing into question. But it provides energy, helping to engage listeners from the start. Usher keeps the energy high on "This Ain't Sex," a feel-good groove that's nostalgic in sound. The song is a modern twist on the style of music mastered by two of Usher's influences: Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
Usher's charm and smooth vocals make the song infectious, and the same can be said for the will.i.am-produced "What's Your Name." The song didn't get the same fanfare as a later collaboration from the two artists, but it proves to be party-ready nonetheless. "OMG" was a nightclub staple, but "What's Your Name" is perfect for a roller rink.
The cheerful, uptempo tracks on Here I Stand help to balance the self-reflection that drives many other songs. "Before I Met You" finds Usher explaining how he has changed since Foster came into his life. He admits to struggling with being faithful and supportive in his past relationships. There's regret in Usher's tone as he recalls his past, but the promise of his future ultimately leaves him with gratitude.
He gives a more celebratory take on himself and his marriage on "Something Special." Usher says he wants the world to know how much he loves his wife and tells her, "Clearly, this is new for me / I get excited when you're here, my dear / Make no mistake, you are all I see, sugar / My vision's never been so clear." Here, he acknowledges that his union with Foster is a level of love and commitment that's foreign to him. But while such change in his life could incite fear, it actually makes Usher overjoyed.
There's a clear sentimentality to the lyrics on "Something Special," and it's enhanced by the track's sound. Usher's harmonies and the acoustic feel of the production make the song reminiscent of Motown. It's the type of music you play at home on a Sunday, and it remains one of my favorites from Usher's catalog.
Like many of Usher's releases, Here I Stand is a diverse offering. It features heartfelt ballads such as the title track and "Moving Mountains." There are songs built for the bedroom, like "Love You Gently" and "Trading Places." And there's even a touching tribute to Usher's first-born son on "Prayer For You (Interlude).” The variety on the album symbolizes Usher's personal growth up until the LP's release. Listeners can hear that he's in love and embracing what it means to be settled down. But traces of the reckless, bachelor life that Usher led before marriage are still present. So when we hear Usher on Here I Stand, we don't hear a changed man, but rather a man in transition.
Years after the release of Confessions, Jermaine Dupri revealed that the songs at the center of the album were based on his life rather than Usher's. This fact doesn't diminish how much Confessions defines Usher's career. But while the 2004 album best represents who Usher is artistically, Here I Stand is the album that best reflects who Usher is personally. His marriage to Tameka Foster, the main inspiration for the album, ended in 2009. Yet, the joy and devotion that the marriage inspired in Usher was genuine nonetheless and that comes across clearly in the music.
Here I Stand didn't top Confessions commercially. The predecessor sold over 1 million copies in its first week, while Here I Stand sold less than half as many units during its initial seven days. The 2008 album also failed to top Confessions in impact, as fans and critics haven't deemed Here I Stand to be a classic. But despite these shortcomings, Here I Stand doesn't short change the listeners. The album offers plenty of memorable songs and it encapsulates a time in Usher's life like no other piece of his discography.