The last time we saw Usher Raymond, IV, he was in a strange place. A living legend who had sold close to 50 million albums worldwide by the age of 25, Usher’s fifth studio album Here I Stand was considered a flop despite selling over 5 million copies. The pop music landscape had changed and a man who had moved 20 million copies of a bonafide R&B album with relative ease just five years earlier was forced to change lanes and cater to the mainstream — thus, “OMG” was born, catapulting the singer back into the worldwide spotlight while leading his sixth album, Raymond v. Raymond, and selling nearly 7 million singles in the process.
Fast-forward to 2012 and Usher’s position atop the R&B throne was precarious at best. His 2010 projects, the aforementioned Raymond v. Raymond and extended play follow-up Versus were disregarded by fans and critics alike — perhaps unfairly, though, as the latter album in particular contained its fair share of Usher at his R&B-making finest.
Then, entirely out of the blue, the singer unveiled “Climax,” produced by celebrated electro and Hip-Hop DJ Diplo and the lead single from a then-untitled and unannounced album. In 2011, Usher had described this album — which, we’d eventually learn, was called Looking 4 Myself — as “revolutionary pop,” but nobody was expecting it contain the most groundbreaking, original and exciting single of his entire career.
“Climax” was a game-changer. Hooking up with Diplo (who, in mainstream terms, still hasn’t yet hit the dizzying heights he’s destined to reach) and dropping such a progressive R&B record as his first single re-positioned Usher as a risk-taker and an unlikely musical visionary, while also giving credence to his bold claims that the album would ”create a new sound experience.”
If this was how future-ready pop sounded to Usher, bring on the revolution.
It should come as no surprise then that “Climax” is the album’s high point. Taking obvious cues from The-Dream and newcomers The Weeknd and Miguel, the hypnotically-minimal breakup anthem is a shining example of what Usher claims he hoped to achieve with Looking 4 Myself, fusing scaling synths and elements of house and dance music organically with traditional R&B to create something fresh, unique and, frankly, stunning.
With the gift of coming back with perhaps the best record of his career comes the curse of raised expectations. “Climax” is the song to which the entire album will inevitably be compared.
Despite the critical and popular acclaim that the lead single received, the album’s next two singles, released almost simultaneously, are far more conventional. “Scream” is a straight-up pounding, four-to-the-floor, Electro-Pop track, and though it features better writing than most similar fare, it ultimately contains nothing revolutionary whatsoever. “Lemme See,” which features the ubiquitous Rick Ross, sounds, in general terms, like every sex-centric downtempo R&B banger of the last few years — specifically Kelly Rowland‘s “Motivation,” which was also produced by Jim Johnsin. It’s good, but hardly memorable.
“I Care For U,” the track that immediately follows “Climax,” is a lot closer to the genre-fusing sound that Usher promised. This time though, Dubstep mates with R&B. Uncharacteristically for Dubstep, the merger happens tenderly; the musical equivalent of a candle-lit romance. It’s a far more predictable marriage but Usher and Danja‘s work here is leagues above the often cheap-sounding faux-Dubstep joint that artists now feel obliged to include on their albums. The track’s percussion, vocal arrangement and even its prominent wobbly bassline owe more to Timbaland than Skrillex, and, ultimately, it’s almost as classy as “Climax.”
Class is a recurring theme here. Sonically, vocally and melodically (although not always lyrically), Looking 4 Myself is, for the most part, classy. Even with the straightforward, hugely predictable electro-pop on the Swedish House Mafia-produced “Numb” and “Euphoria,” Usher is operating at a level above his David Guetta and Red One-loving peers.
Noah “40″ Shebib, Drake‘s right-hand man and one of the most underappreciated producers of recent times, provides Usher with his trademark, minimally-atmospheric soundscape on “What Happened To U,” another of the album’s highlights. Much like when he worked with Alicia Keys on “Unthinkable,” hearing an actual singer with some vocal chops on one of 40′s incredible beats is a pleasant change.
“Lessons For The Lover” is one of the album’s rare slow burners and another “Motivation” sound-alike, but this stands tall where the aforementioned “Lemme See” falls. Sure, it contains the lyric “you fall hard, but think about how hard you come” (remember what I said earlier about the lyrics not always matching the rest of the album’s elegance), but you can’t win them all.
The album’s penultimate track, “Sins of My Father,” produced by Salaam Remi, perhaps best represents both Usher’s evolution as an artist and where he might be able go next. All rolling, rumbling bass and sinister overtones, this is dark and subtly-intense grown-up R&B music that’s as much about his absent father as it is about the scarlet women of the song’s narrative. It’s also one of the album’s best vocal performances — outstanding stuff that the Usher of a decade ago could never have recorded.
For all its highlights, though, the album is not without the odd misstep. The will.i.am-produced opener “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is a predictably awful pastiche (sample lyric: “I’mma get you wet // raincoat“, which rivals “I’mma go hard // statues” from will.i.am’s recent masterpiece “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)“). It’s loud, bombastic and entirely unnecessary, even as a means to grab the listener’s attention.
The title track, which features Luke Steele of Australian duo Empire of the Sun, is perhaps misjudged. It’s entirely inoffensive but, were it not for the high-profile feature, would be equally forgettable.
Prior to its release, Usher described Looking 4 Myself as an artistic rebirth, and it’s clear now that those weren’t platitudes. That this attempted evolution has been so spectacularly successful is in no small part due to the all-star cast of producers who contributed to the album, almost all of whom were on top form. It’s not quite the revolution of all music that was promised, nonetheless, with his seventh studio album the 33-year-old pop titan has moved beyond the unfortunate bandwagon-jumping of previous projects and repositioned himself as a pace-setter. Better still, he displays a propensity for both trend-setting and maturing with grace. This isn’t his best album, it still lags behind 8701 and Confessions in that respect, but it’s not all that far off.
Seven joints deep, how many other artists can really say they added to, rather than detracted from, their legacies?