Usher Raymond IV has always had all the talent and fame in the world, but he has also always wanted to be taken seriously. Maybe it’s because he was thrust into pop stardom as a teenager; maybe because he’s had some very public ups and downs. Whatever the reason, he has always worked hard to show us how hard he’s working. This has sometimes resulted in thrilling pop moments (the best parts of Confessions, the “My Way” video, etc.) and sometimes just been exhausting (almost all of Raymond v. Raymond). Turns out there IS such a thing as “too interesting.”
But this record… well, this is another thing entirely. Looking 4 Myself is ambitious without being hifalutin, gritty without wallowing, and emotional without lapsing into pathos. And, while it’s not the coherent thing out there, it is easily one of the best albums of the year.
Those of you needing smoothness and unity of tone might want to try something else, because that stuff largely ain’t here. There are 12 producers on the (Deluxe Edition’s) 18 tracks, and songs ranging from retro-soul exercises (Pharrell Williams’ work on “Twisted”) to futuristic R&B (the twins of “Climax” and “I Care For U,” all the way to ’80s new wave pop (the title track) and the deeply strange enigma of “Sins of My Father.” (Salaam Remi, please keep making the catchiest weird music in the U.S. Thank you.)
But there are some unifying threads among this sprawling record. One is that Usher’s voice has never sounded better — and that’s saying a lot. He absolutely rips “Climax” and “What Happened to U,” nails party anthems like “Scream” and “Euphoria” to the wall, and puts across harder things even while multitracking himself 35 times over with the greatest of ease. Another one is Usher’s apparent loss of identity. Several songs here have him questioning who he really is (“Looking 4 Myself,” sounding as close to late Police as anyone else has ever done including Sting), or how he found himself alone and battling for custody of his children (“What Happened to U”).
“Climax”, the album’s first single blew away critics when it was first released, On one level, it explores what happened to a great relationship that turned out to just be about sex. On another level, it’s pure sonics; producer Diplo proves he’s still great at manipulating blank space, and Usher blasts some of those long high notes that no one else even TRIES to do anymore. But the real signifier here is Usher showing us how far his vision goes, and how hard he will work to put a track over the top. But yeah, it’s also about having sex.
In fact, many of the best tunes here are just flat-out horn-dog songs. “Dive” gets it done by going TRIPLE-entendre on us: ostensibly singing about diving, we realize Usher is talking about oral sex — only to realize that what he’s really discussing is commitment to a relationship. Clever stuff, performed stunningly; Usher’s delivery of “The walls look like they might / Precipitate” is done in an urgent whispered falsetto that would seem ridiculous on anyone else, but he pulls it off easily and as sincerely as he can.
Looking 4 Myself isn’t really some crazed attempt at capturing the avant-garde or anything; after all, it opens with a will.i.am song that interpolates the bridge from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”. (Some people hate this song, but hating will.i.am is getting pretty old now, and there’s some silly energy in the track. But this is still a record pushing the boundaries of what modern R&B music can be and still keep its audience. Usher sounds and looks good out on that cutting edge. Hope he stays out there for a little while…but is it bad to hope that Usher doesn’t find what — or whom — he is looking for? Because he makes some damned good records when he’s in this searching mode.