Making the transition from teenage idol to adult icon is tricky; just look at Usher's 2001 album, ''8701,'' which seemed to ignore the fact that the Atlanta heartthrob had passed the drinking age. Happily, Confessions is another story. It finds the singer, now 25, deftly segueing from loverboy to loverman, embracing harder-hitting sounds and subject matter (infidelity, unplanned pregnancy) without sacrificing his soulful sugar.
The vocalist reveals his newfound maturity by opening with the grittiest song he's ever done, the irresistibly crunked-out ''Yeah!,'' which finds him impressively holding his own with guest rappers Lil Jon and Ludacris. The ensuing track glides smoothly between club-friendly hip-hop soul and ballads. A boatload of hitmakers weigh in -- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dre & Vidal (Jill Scott), Just Blaze -- but the best songs come from the team of Jermaine Dupri and Bryan Michael Cox, whose ''Confessions Part II'' and ''Burn'' feature mellifluous melodies; they also contribute a hilariously unsubtle Prince tribute, ''Do It to Me.'' The only clunker is ''Bad Girl,'' where Usher ridiculously grunts, ''I'ma get me one of them!'' over a third-rate Stonesy riff.
At a time when male R&B icons are in short supply, Usher is just what we need. And he's got the pipes to match his perfect abs.