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Aside from the NBA Finals, there are two things that are on constantly on my mind: Grand Theft Auto IV and Usher's latest album, "Here I Stand".

And, in an attempt to somehow diversify my blog and please all you non-NBA fans out there reading my blog (yup, all three of you), I want to share my thoughts on those releases.

I know this is a bit late, having been out since April, but I just got this game last Sunday. And man, I wouldn't wish the long and torturous wait on anyone.

5 hours into the game, this is absolutely the greatest game I have ever played. No, don't confuse "greatest" with "perfect", and it saddens me to hear people call this game over-rated. Just like in life, there will never be a perfect video game. There will always be compromises, whether it be due to hardware limitations, software capacity, time constraints or just plain ole' developer mediocrity.

And it is with this realization that I so readily proclaim GTA as the king of games. It's just the over-whelming details the developers have flooded us with. Everything here just screams "next-level" GTA. The city has been rendered so beautifully that you can practically hear the "booos" directed to Isiah Thomas. The people populating the city are exceptionally varied you'd swear you knew them. It's that diverse. Hell, I was walking down the street when a car intentionally ran me over because he claimed that "his car wouldn't get hurt, but you will". Crazy. Sometimes, in fact, it's enough to scare me from going to New York City.

I also like the details peppered all throughout the city. There are faux versions for all things relevant in today's pop culture. Surprisingly, though, I never expected to see Ricky Gervais performing stand-up. And let's not forget the amazing selection of music. The theme song, in particular, is both haunting and climactic.

Technically, though, this is a very big step up from previous GTA's. This is what next-gen gaming is all about. The movements and physics are so real, it really pained me to see Niko Bellic getting ran over by a car. The way their arms and legs flail wilder than Michael Flatley's is disturbing. This is not a cartoon, and I'm glad their physical movements reflect that.

5 hours in, with most of my time spent on watching the TV in my apartment (the perfect way to cap off a day of killing random dudes), I've only just begun to get to the good part of the story. But from my brief playing time, character development has been astounding. This is no random character on a rampage. Everything he does has a purpose, and just like in GTA: San Andreas, you will soon form a bond with your main character.

There are a few quibbles, however... For one, the driving aspect of the game underwent a drastic change. Whereas, in the past, handling was pretty smooth, Take-Two seemingly decided to make things more "realistic". In turn, I think they only made it worse. I bought GTA for the open-ended gameplay, not for Gran Turismo-like vehicle handling, dammit! I just want tight handling and I don't care if my pickup truck handles like a Ferrari.

Lastly, despite welcome changes, I think the combat aspect could still be improved. They made the necessary improvements (cover, blind-fire, etc.), but it still feels a bit too mechanical. The controls remind me too much of Tomb Raider. I expect this to get better.

In all, this is still one of the finest games ever made. Like I said, compromises can never be avoided, so maximizing all of your resources is key to making a great game. GTA was never meant to be the next Gears Of War. To match the graphics of Metal Gear Solid was never in their intentions. Instead, they set out to make the most immersive world out there. One that would capture life in the big city. In other words, it set out to be the perfect Grand Theft Auto. And for that, mission accomplished. Stop hatin'.

Mature. Grown man music. Underwhelming. Lost the edge.

These are just a few of the things I read bout Usher's latest disc (or, more appropriately, group of .mp3 files). And, with all due respect to the critics out there, I'd like to disagree.

These types of assessments lead me to question the mindset of our society (or maybe America's). They say that by getting married (or maybe, being genuinely happy), Usher lost his edge. He lost the sexiness that used to ooze out of his past songs. Where were the "U Don't Have To Call"'s? The jams so sex-infused they could impregnate women upon listening? "Where are those now", they ask. In all honesty, it's still there. It just so happened that they are not the lone topic Usher discusses.

They claim he wasn't being creatively musically on "Here I Stand". That it's basically the same tunes he's been singing all throughout his career. That could not be farther from the truth. Yeah, the tunes may sound slightly similar, but the lyrics sure have changed. It's pathetic how critics say he should have sticked to the getting his sexy on. After all, isn't a person supposed to grow? To somehow mature and view life from a different perspective? This is exactly what the album is... Usher's entry into the world of fatherhood. And while I am in no way being that mature soon, I appreciate the fact that Usher wasn't afraid to branch out. Jay-Z said it best on "Best Thing", "boys become men". Spoken perfectly by the newly-minted Mr. Beyonce Knowles.

Still, though, this isn't all substance and no style. It's not like Usher suddenly forgot how to churn out hits, after all. There are plenty of juicy tracks here. The lead single, "Love In This Club", is hella catchy. And it's proof that although the Usher we knew is quickly evolving, he still has the good sense to throw us a sensual jam about, yes, making love in a club. The song's remix, "Love In This Club Part 2", is equally sweet, with Usher and Beyonce playfully playing cat-and-mouse.

The new single, "Moving Mountains", is heartfelt. It's such a pleasure hearing the man singing his heart out in a struggle to win the heart of his woman back. "His Mistakes", a personal favorite of mine, was written by Ne-Yo and is perfectly sud-dued and mellow. These are songs that shows Usher's more vulnerable side, and is unlike all the other cookie-cutter songs out there.

Hell, you want variety? Try this: Usher gets his inner R. Kelly on in "Trading Places", the afore-mentioned "Best Thing" with Jay-Z is a future hit, the Stevie Wonder-ish "Here I Stand" is magnificent, the Motown-tinged "Something Special" makes you warm inside, and the bonus track "Will Work For Love" is cheery and cute, despite the desperate undertone.

See? Despite most people pigeon-holing this album as "lame", it actually isn't. A majority of the songs just focus more on the less-extravagant parts of a relationship. The songs are still hip, the mandatory big-name producers (The-Dream, Will.I.Am, Polow Da Pon, etc.) are out in full force, and he's still putting out hits. What's there to not like?

Actually, there's one thing I dislike about this. Despite being good all the way through, I think the album is much too long. At over 70 minutes, it may be too long for some people. And really, there are songs that could have been left off. It's a shame, really, because the length could prevent some people from ever listening to "Here I Stand" and "Will Work For Love".

Despite that, this has been on "PLAY" for 4 straight days now. It's that good. The last album to do this to me was the vastly under-rated "Love/Hate" by The-Dream. "Here I Stand" is a truly wonderful album, and one that I recommend buying to just about anybody out there.

Well, at least the mass population agrees with me.

Digg! BallHype: hype it up!


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