NEW YORK (Billboard) - Usher’s last album failed to meet critics’ expectations, and plenty counted him out because of it. But his latest single, “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home),” is a clear indication that the R&B crooner is bringing sexy back. “‘Cause what I got, you gonna wanna get some/But girl, that’s only if you ain’t scared,” the recently divorced father of two teases in his honeyed tenor. He keeps up his flirtatious taunting on the chorus, atop a silky piano pattern and hand claps. Plies makes a nice addition to the already sexified track, as the self-proclaimed goon drops a raunchy verse in his raspy Southern drawl. “Hey Daddy” might not be a chart-topper — yet — but it will make the naysayers pay attention again.
SINGLE: HEARTBREAK WARFARE (Columbia Records)
John Mayer is back, and as brokenhearted as ever. The second single from his new album, “Battle Studies” (and the follow-up to the meandering, blues-inspired “Who Says”), “Heartbreak Warfare” is also a throwback to Mayer’s pop-rock balladeer side. “Once you want it to begin, no one really ever wins,” the singer-songwriter croons over delicate guitar work and smooth drum and bass grooves. Despite the song’s stylistic similarities to past hits like “Gravity,” Mayer appears to be finding his happy medium as a lyricist, balancing safer lines like “If you want more love, why don’t you say so,” with such edgier fare as “Red wine and Ambien/You’re talking s—t again.” With his latest release, Mayer shows his versatility as a songwriter who can travel from pop to blues and back again.
SINGLE: JUST BREATHE (Monkeywrench Records)
“Just Breathe,” the second single from Pearl Jam’s “Backspacer,” finds Eddie Vedder at a crossroads between weathered rock stalwart and lovelorn troubadour. The song strays from the well-worn guitar riffs and wild growls of previous single “The Fixer” and moves even further away from the band’s grunge roots. Recalling Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and echoing Vedder’s work on the soundtrack to “Into the Wild,” the introduction is standard — an acoustic guitar, played softly and faded in — for a band testing out more emotional waters. The chorus, meanwhile, finds Vedder pining for a lost love over orchestral strings. “Did I say that I want you?/Did I say that I need you?/Oh, if I didn’t, I’m a fool,” he sings. While “Just Breathe” isn’t quite like anything Pearl Jam has released before — it’s as close to a love song as Vedder has ever written — its steady chart climb suggests that fans like seeing the frontman’s heart on his sleeve.
ARTIST: JAY-Z FEATURING SWIZZ BEATZ
SINGLE: ON TO THE NEXT ONE (Roc Nation)
More than any of its predecessors, “On to the Next One” best accomplishes what Jay-Z set out to do with “The Blueprint 3”: stay the course of trendsetter. The veteran rapper explains why all should continue to follow his lead with lines like, “Used to rock a throwback, ballin’ on the corner/Now I rock a Teller suit, lookin’ like an owner,” equating aging with improvement. That point is not lost on producer Swizz Beatz, who trades in his usual arsenal for fresh sounds more native to Ibiza than Jay’s native Brooklyn. Unleashing sputtering drums over a sample from Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.,” Beatz packs the song with a hypnotic electro-bounce. Its thundering bassline is nothing new — in fact, it’s been Beatz’s calling card for years — but it’s still convincing as ever, much like Jay-Z and his forward-looking work.
SINGLE: MY BEST DAYS ARE AHEAD OF ME (19/RCA Records)
Danny Gokey placed third on the 2009 season of “American Idol” and inked a deal in Nashville to pursue a country music career. He’s off to a great start with this buoyant single that showcases his strong, soulful voice and upbeat persona. Written by veteran Music Row writers Marv Green and Kent Blazy, “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me” is so far the feel-good country song of 2010, with its soaring melody, sing-along chorus and positive message. As “Idol” viewers know, Gokey’s wife died shortly before the 29-year-old artist’s audition for the show, and he infuses this song with an emotional weight generally rare in one so young. His performance teems with vulnerability, hope, strength and resiliency. It’s a perfect marriage of artist and song that should serve as a strong launch pad for this talented “Idol” alum.
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