R&B hasn’t been privy to many commercial releases positioned as male post-marital albums, but Usher’s new offering Raymond v. Raymond can be seen as just that, keeping in mind his documented break-up last year and also calling to mind a milestone post-divorce record released in 1978 by Marvin Gaye, Here My Dear. Gaye’s double-album was a response to his alimony proceedings, where his former wife Anna Gordy Gaye was awarded extensive royalties and a portion of the advance for the album that would eventually become Here My Dear.
And while Raymond v. Raymond is ostensibly about divorce as well, it might also refer to Usher’s struggle with himself, to the clash between personas—the more contemplative, sensitive crooner that we saw on his previous album Here I Stand and the partying swag-meister we see reigning here.
The emphasis is indeed on getting down after a split, with plenty of uptempo and mid-tempo numbers—”Monstar,” “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home),” “Lil Freak,” “She Don’t Know,” “OMG,” and “So Many Girls,” among others—that celebrate partying, female acquisition and sex. “Lil Freak” in particular, with its sampling of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and lyrics about women who play with each other before indulging in a ménage a trois, treats star-driven out-the-box romps (at least with Usher and guest rapper sidekick Nicki Minaj) as transcendental transformation.
Tender Usher arrives as well, with loving lady toasts on “There Goes My Baby” and “Making Love Into the Night.” And the songs that deal directly with splitting up have the most to say about tensions between being a public brand and a devoted husband. “Foolin’ Around” is an apology to his lady for being with other women connected to his fame. “Papers,” the lead single whose synth production bursts and R2-D2 call-and-response cues connote change, has a more outraged Usher lamenting how he almost lost himself (and his mom) due to the failing relationship. And the cavalier “Guilty” is an about face from “Foolin’ Around,” with the singer stating his ex was merely paranoid about any philandering due to the singer’s club life and popularity with women.
The funky Here My Dear has more cohesive themes, even as many of the songs freely float and play on and on. Dear chronicles Gaye’s relationship with his ex while mapping out an array of emotions—sadness, understanding, confusion, nostalgia, mockery, derision, protectiveness, and recrimination, exampled by the line from “When Did You Stop Loving Me”: “If you ever loved me with all of your heart, you wouldn’t take a billion dollars to part.”
Gaye sounds at moments as if he’s drifting away in a woozy haze, yet he’s still trying trying to hold on to the principles of love, vulnerability and sensuality, even looking forward to new relationships on “Falling in Love Again” and “A Funky Space Reincarnation.” Interpolated on Musiq Soulchild’s latest album, Reincarnation has talk of Gaye getting down with his paramour on “a space bed” among the stars in a far-out galactic future.
Gaye’s musical journey on Here My Dear is more about looking at the past and within to find some resolution to a nasty situation, whereas Raymond steps away from hinted-at pain by turning to shining lights and stardom. The albums reflect their respective cultural eras, yet they’re also arrows—one sharp, one blunted—pointing to the choices available when romance dies.