Usher Finds Himself in Dancefloor Pop and R&B Roots
Published: Monday, June 18, 2012
Updated: Monday, June 18, 2012 21:06
Finally, a dance album that the Top 40 DJs can spin to their hearts desires and that will surely be blaring at middle school dances for generations to come. In Usher’s new album, Looking 4 Myself, he explores multiple different styles, everything from soul to electro to his staple R&B.
Album opener “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is shameless radio pandering. Produced by will.i.am, its thundering, wobbling bass line clashes with a synth hook that samples Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Like the duo’s 2010 smash hit “OMG”, it’s just catchy enough to distract from how vapid it is.
Second single “Scream” has already spent months on the charts and on the radio, with good reason. Four-on-the-floor beats and a pulsing synth make for a club banger, especially when layered beneath not-so-subtle innuendo that would give the parents who protested Elvis’ hips a heart attack. Think a revamped “DJ Got Us Falling In Love,” with the sex appeal of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe’s love child.
But despite the in-your-face sexuality of “Scream,” Looking 4 Myself peaks with the appropriately named “Climax,” where, in spite of the suggestive title, Usher looks back at a failed relationship. The slow burning quiet storm was produced and co-written by Diplo, of Major Lazer fame. While “Climax” has Diplo’s Midas touch all over it, it’s far more restrained that some of his other work, which has included bombastic bounce anthems like “Pon De Floor” and “Express Yourself”. Usher creeps into falsetto over moody, minimalist instrumentals. The skittering beat perfectly focuses the listener on Usher’s reflection and is so smooth that Usher himself predicted a baby boom nine months from the song’s release. “Climax” is proof of Usher’s evolution, moving away both lyrically and sonically from the club smashes and R&B crooning that made him world famous.
There is little apparent structure to the album, with Usher jumping from genre to genre, switching tempo and lyrical message with each song. He could have teased the listener, building the album as a whole to a peak with “Scream” and Swedish House Mafia-produced “Euphoria,” only to showcase his artistic talent in a diversified denouement. Sadly, that isn’t the case.
The rest of the album has its standouts as well as its flops. “Show Me” channels both classic Usher and Off the Wall era Michael Jackson, a comparison that’s not unfair after his repeated attempts to bring back the moonwalk. “Lemme See” is a mediocretrack, save for the standard, run-of-the-mill Rick Ross money-affiliated, bark-punctuated guest verse, which goes for the edgy Trayvon Martin reference but falls flat. “What Happened to U” is the record’s low point, where Usher essentially pats himself on the back for his riches, which he can’t appreciate without his lost love. It’s hard to sympathize though, as he gets a little too self-indulgent.
“Twisted”, featuring Pharrell, could be the album’s sleeper hit. A Motown throwback, it still has the requisite 808s and chopped vocal samples, but proves that there’s more to a Top 40 hit than just fist pumping beats. Usher even implores “Why you gotta do me that way?”, which was a practically mandatory line in every soul song of the 1960’s.
Usher seems to have a penchant for long, expansive albums and, for whatever reason, not spelling out the word “you”. Clocking in at just under an hour, Looking 4 Myself can certainly grow tiresome. Yet, those familiar with Usher will be thrilled to find him right where he left off after 2010’s Raymond v. Raymond. Those who have since written him off should certainly give this a listen, as he continues to expand his musical horizons.
Song to Download: "Climax"
Song to Skip: "What Happened to U"