Album review: Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself'
This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
In a 2010 interview, Usher Raymond IV was asked about his then-recently unveiled new hairstyle, a so-called “faux-hawk” that was popular at the time. The multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning R&B singer known the world over as simply Usher replied with a bold statement on his work to come. “I'm a consumer of culture and love mixing styles and inspirations, both in my music and my style.” He then said he was working on a new creation that "combines several music genres to create a new sound experience.
“I love that people are talking about the new hair,” he added. “It represents who I am now and the creative movement of Revolutionary Pop.”
Two years later, Usher has changed his hairstyle and survived another messy divorce, and the question now comes as to whether his new, seventh, record, “Looking 4 Myself,” represents his predicted Great Leap Forward into a new realm of revolutionary pop. Few artists, after all, can claim to have created entire new genres, and fewer still are brash enough to say it out loud. Most who claim such a feat — Prince, Elvis, Kraftwerk, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, James Brown, Madonna — behaved as though their innovations were a given and didn’t need to harp on them.
So how revolutionary is Usher’s pop? Is “Looking 4 Myself” a “new sound experience”?
It’s more pop than it is revolutionary, but within its 14 songs are a number of fantastic steps forward (and back, and to the side, and twisting all around), key music that draws on a world of styles permeating pop culture in 2012, including electronic dance music, progressive R&B, dubstep, pop and hip-hop, to create an interesting hybrid pop. At its best, Usher and an impressive team of producer/collaborators, which includes longtime muse Rico Love, Diplo, will.i.am, the Neptunes and Swedish House Mafia, tweak the pop recipe enough to offer surprises. But the album is fat, and any revolution within gets nearly stomped to death by too many 130 beats-per-minute defeats.
“Looking 4 Myself” begins with an Usher benediction, declaration and demand: “Hey, what’s up? This is a jam, turn it up! Play it loud in the club, this is fire, it’s burning me up,” he sings as a hard, jerky beat produced by Black Eyed Peas founder will.i.am. marches forward lock step with synth clusters and the sticky doo-wop melody ripped from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” The first of many dubstep bass-drops — wobbly, bottom end synth noises as popularized by Skrillex — arrives a minute later, accompanied by beefy, off-kilter bass pound.
Revolutionary? Not so much, but it’s weirder than anything Lady Gaga’s done.
The album gets stranger from there, though, and 13 songs and an hour later Usher has made a convincing case for his revolution, even if it never fully comes to pass.
The strongest arguments on “Looking 4 Myself” are those on which Raymond, 33, steps outside of conventions, and they are legion, even if they’re often overshadowed by the kind of dancefloor bangers currently permeating the pop charts via artists such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Chris Brown and Lady Gaga.
But then Usher is partially responsible for the recent success of this formula. His early club tracks helped define the ’00s, and it’s hard to imagine the current crop of dance pop without citing the influence of hits like “OMG,” “Yeah!,” and (one of my favorite pop songs of the ’00s) “Caught Up.” On “Looking 4 Myself,” the best of these club tracks is the Danja-produced “Show Me,” featuring driving house synth-claps with a propellant techno rhythm bubbling beneath it. The most predictable, and less successful, are those produced by Swedish House Mafia, the progressive house trio whose beats are easily identified by their patent obviousness.
A number of surprises lurk within, though. “Twisted” is the most disruptive track on the album, and proves that production duo the Neptunes are still able to time-travel back from the future to offer another dose of innovation. The rhythm is ridiculous, the kind that the Virginia team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are experts at creating. Jim Jonsin’s catchy rhythm on “Lemme See” finds its groove when Rick Ross parks his Lamborghini on the track’s lawn for a cameo. (Pharrell, by contrast, raps of rolling on another kind of vehicle, “20 of us on Vespas and mopeds,” cruising the city and offering a girl a gift of white lipstick.)
The biggest outlier on “Looking 4 Myself” is Usher’s collaboration with Australian progressive electronic group Empire of the Sun on the title track. The song, which features Empire lead singer Luke Steele, is a new wave ditty with a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hall & Oates or later-period Steely Dan record.
For his part, it’s only natural that Usher Raymond is “looking 4 himself,” as the title suggests. After all, in the 17 years since his debut album, released when he was 16, he’s gone through two very public breakups, the latter of which (divorce from Tameka Foster) happened in 2009 and fueled the singer’s last album, “Raymond vs. Raymond.” “Looking 4 Myself,” then, is the work of a man, as the slow-burning “Climax” so remarkably lays out, who is no longer married but has love and romance on his mind more than ever.
“I’m looking for myself,” he sings, “all my life I’ve been searching, and somehow I’ve come up empty.”
Then he adds that he’s been on a journey trying to find himself. “And I realized, when you’re not here, half of me is gone. So in order to find me, I have to find you.” Whether he ever finds the object of his desire is unimportant, at least from an artistic point of view. As long as he keeps searching, he’ll always have fodder for new work. And even if he finds her, could a sequel to “Raymond vs. Raymond” be far behind?
“Looking 4 Myself”
[For the record, 11:55 p.m., June 12: An earlier version of this post said that Usher had divorced twice, but he has only been married and divorced once.]
— Randall Roberts
Photo: Album artwork from Usher's 'Looking 4 Myself.' Credit: RCA Records