The new album's 14 tracks include heartfelt ballads ("There Goes My Baby," "Foolin' Around") reminiscent of such earlier smashes as "Burn" and "Confessions," intermingled with edgy, sexy party jams like the fantasy romp "Lil Freak" featuring Young Money upstart Nicki Minaj (and sampling Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City") and a pumping anthem to hot females titled "OMG," featuring the song's writer/producer Will.i.am. Also making guest appearances are fellow Atlantans Ludacris ("She Don't Know") and T.I. ("Guilty"). On the latter, Usher and T.I. trade bragging rights as Usher lets it be known in his own sing-song rap that he's "single and ready to mingle."
Originally due in fall 2009, "Raymond Vs. Raymond" has gone through its share of shifting release dates. An announced Dec. 21 date was pushed back to early 2010 by the label in order to give the album "a proper launch." Then in late December, leaks began appearing on blog sites following a Christmas holiday robbery in which Usher's vehicle was broken into and jewelry, furs and a computer containing unreleased recordings were stolen, according to news reports.
"A lot of things happened in between, including personal issues that Usher was going through, that threw us off," Pitts says of the album's delay. "We lost some time and lost the flow."
The one nod to Usher's personal problems is the Garrett-produced "Papers," recorded before the singer filed for divorce. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and peaked at No. 31 on the Hot Billboard 100.
" 'Papers' let everyone know that Usher knew what everyone was saying about him, his marriage and his relationship with his mom; that he understood what was being said," Pitts says. "It was just to make a statement. We didn't realize it would be as big as it was."
Usher adds, "The song wasn't intended to glorify my personal situation or people breaking up. I didn't know if it was going to be the single or part of the album. I just thought it was a special track that would represent me well."
Currently, three album tracks-"Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)," "There Goes My Baby" and "Lil Freak"-are steadily climbing both Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and the Hot 100. "Hey Daddy," featuring Plies, rose to No. 10 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and No. 47 on the Hot 100, while "There Goes" stands at No. 29 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, No. 11 on Adult R&B and No. 71 on the Hot 100. "Lil Freak," leaked before the Wonder sample was cleared a couple of weeks ago, moves 34-28 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and is climbing the Rhythmic chart (38-32).
Because these songs haven't matched the instant crossover appeal of Usher's 2004 smash "Yeah!," some industry watchers are questioning the sales fate of "Raymond Vs. Raymond." Pitts cautions patience, as do two major-market radio programmers.
" 'Yeah!' and 'Confessions' were a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon," Pitts says. "His previous records didn't do that, and you can't get spoiled by that. At the same time, he's never had three records going up all at the same time. These are work records and they're starting to take off."
At WQHT (Hot 97) New York, "Daddy's Home" is the rhythmic station's No. 1 researching record. PD Ebro Darden believes Usher will regain his blockbuster appeal. "Following 'Confessions,' it would have been difficult no matter what the music sounded like," Darden says. "He was mentally in a different place on the last album. But mainstream needs artists like Usher who are popular with R&B audiences first."
Top 40 KIIS Los Angeles PD John Ivey also dismisses any notion that Usher can't still claim top 40 crossover play. He predicts that "OMG" will be a pop smash.
"We desperately love 'OMG,' " Ivey says. "But the label doesn't want us to play it yet. We're always looking for great songs that sound relevant and current for the format, regardless of the artist's age or what happened the last time out. A hit record is forgiving of everything."
Independent retailer Dedry Jones, who operates the Music Experience in Chicago, believes that "the label needs to focus on his core urban male and female base-the original fan base that put him in the position to sell a diamond CD."
That is exactly what Jive VP of marketing Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell says the label is doing: crafting a campaign focusing on "the pedigree that Usher has created for himself: great R&B music that turns pop." After using "Papers" (which didn't have an accompanying video) to let Usher address his personal problems "without actually having to talk" about them, Cambridge-Mitchell says the label has been ramping up buzz through high-profile TV performances, radio interviews and contesting, plus retail tie-ins.
Prior to his medal ceremony performance at the Olympics, Usher sang during the Michael Jackson 3-D tribute at the 52nd annual Grammy Awards and also performed in Arlington, Texas, during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game on TNT. Bookings on "American Idol," "Good Morning America" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" are being confirmed.