By Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published June 18, 2012
The release of pop-soul phenom Usher’s newest album comes at a time when pop music is largely struggling to hold on to any sense of craftsmanship and genuineness. And with his last album, Raymond v. Raymond, Usher wholly bought into these fads, releasing some of his most trite and unimpressive singles. With Looking 4 Myself, he transforms the trends, bends and twists them to make them his own. And the end product is nothing short of masterful.
Looking 4 Myself
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But Usher isn’t really looking for himself — he knows who he is and that’s why he’s a lasting megastar in a genre where so many have their brief, fiery moment in the spotlight before flickering and fading. His music has always been honest, and Looking 4 Myself is no exception. In fact, it’s his most emotionally layered album since the sensational Confessions.
But the album is not without its missteps, and Usher still throws on a few auto-tuned, Top-40-esque tracks to guarantee radio playability. The album’s first two tracks, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” and “Scream,” make absolutely no pretensions, the former opening oh-so-daftly with “Hey, what’s up, this is a jam / Turn it up,” and the latter featuring a too-familiar beat. When will Usher learn that a song without his sweet, lilting falsetto is like a sugarless cake? The bonus tracks similarly lack musical or emotional depth: The intriguing classical violin sampling in “I.F.U” is overshadowed by forced “Birthday Cake”-y robo-claps.
The supporting cast Usher employs speaks to the eccentricity of influences at play on Looking 4 Myself. In “Twisted,” he teams up with The Neptunes to create a stripped-down funk jam that blends a throwback, swinging beat with early ’00s soul, similar to the likes of Gnarls Barkley. To create an instant pop-house dance hit, he turns to Swedish House Mafia and their crisp, layered synth sounds. Perhaps most bizarrely is his partnership with Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele on the smooth titular track, "Looking 4 Myself," that spectacularly imbues Usher’s soul sounds with a bouncing, electro-rock guitar line.
Alive and effortless, the lead single, “Climax,” remains the albums most skillful endeavor. The Diplo-helmed power-ballad features delicate, ever-crescendoing synths sprinkled amongst a brew of perfectly timed percussive sounds. Usher’s vocals are huge and vulnerable all at once, as he wails around a trilling string arrangement from composer Nico Muhly. It might just be one of the best breakup songs of all time.
Usher similarly shows off his pipes on “Dive,” a lulling and understated anthem that reaches Marvin Gaye levels of vocal variation. And there’s “I Care For U,” which opens with a warbling bass and hollow percussion suggesting another lackluster club banger. But the song unfolds into a beautiful electro-soul slow jam with verses reminiscent of Prince.
Usher calls the genre of Looking 4 Myself “revolutionary pop” and considering the way the album culminates so many influences into a cohesive sound that highlights the multi-platinum, multi-Grammy-winning artist’s finest skills, he might just earn such an enterprising claim. The album has the crossover and sex appeal of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, but whereas J.T. focused a bit too much on bending the genre, leaving the lyrics underthought and gooey, Usher experiments and still maintains an endearing level of sincerity with his verses. He doesn’t redefine himself, because he doesn’t need to. Instead, he suggests that big-pop doesn’t necessarily need to follow the crass Top-40 template and the genre isn’t completely isolated from musical and emotional breadth.