Last December, when Usher's record company halted the release of his new album, All About U, at the last minute, it was reportedly because the entire thing was prematurely leaked to Napster. Coincidentally-- or maybe not so -- its lead single, "Pop Ya Collar," which was officially released, stiffed, signaling a lack of interest in the 22-year-old's first album in four years. All About U was completely scrapped, and Usher returned to the studio with hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, and Babyface. The result, 8701, is a decidedly streetwise collection that doesn't just make the smooth-ass singer sound like he's keeping up with his contemporaries; it makes him sound exactly like his contemporaries. And stripped of any personality whatsoever.
Usher and 8701 might as well be . . . well, take your pick. Adopting a post-New Jack style and tougher rhythms and rhymes, this could be any generic, hip-hop-flavored soundtrack of the month. Crooning ballad? Check. Booty call? Check. Ego-boosting street shout-out? Check. They're all here, and with hotshot producers like the Neptunes behind him, they sound damn good. But just try to find the soul beneath the surface gloss. U.K. import Craig David, who mines similar territory, makes Usher sound like an R&B robot. But the return to the studio has paid off. 8701's first single, "U Remind Me," rocketed to No. 1, and Usher is more or less guaranteed a multiplatinum album akin to 1997's My Way. With 8701, he's giving the current pop/R&B market exactly what it wants -- which, of course, will fill his pockets. But it isn't good for the soul.