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Usher may be “Looking 4 Myself,” as his new album’s title indicates, but he certainly isn’t at a loss when he’s searching for musical styles. On his most adventurous album yet, Usher takes styles that have worked for him in the past, whether it was his smooth swagger or his dance leanings and turns them on their head. “Looking 4 Myself” is not so much a reinvention as an exploration of different styles by a confident artist secure enough to abandon past formulas.
The result is an inventive, stylish album, out June 12, that could be heavily rewarded come Grammy time.
Oddly, “Looking” opens with the weakest tracks, but then picks up steam and moves from strength to strength. As fans of his know, no genre seems beyond Usher’s reach and while he may not have quite the vocal dexterity of a Maxwell or a D’Angelo, the totality of his talent is breathtakingly on display here.
The album starts with club jam “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” which features enough autotuning to make T.I. proud and borrows a melody from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” It’s another in a long line of “getting freaky” tunes about going downtown and beyond on an uptown girl that is tedious after the first listen.
Second track and current single,“Scream” is a generic tune about “going all night.” I don’t know of any woman who would find the line “Now relax and get on your back” a particular turn on. It’s a rare wrongheaded move from someone who has otherwise proved to be an effective seducer.
The set proceeds with first single, “Climax,” about a couple that can’t find its way back to each other. Singing in his falsetto, Usher shows why he’s a seven-time Grammy winner on the vulnerable, wistful tune. “I Care For You” starts off weak, but expands into a Seal-like ballad.
Though Usher has said much of the album was influenced by his expanding his musical landscape through attending Coachella or exploring electronica and dance (Swedish House Mafia produce album closer, the aptly named “Euphoria”), Prince’s influence shows up in all the right places, as does Usher’s love of Stevie Wonder, and such contemporaries as Outkast.
From fifth track, “Show Me,” on, he is off and running, confidently exploring current pop trends: you can hear a Bruno Mars-type sensibility throughout the delicious pop tune that takes the infectiousness of a great boy-band song and gives it extra heft though Usher’s powerful vocals. “Lemme See” featuring Rick Ross feels a little regressive for Usher by now, but longtime fans will appreciate it.
On the Usher/Pharrell Williams co-write, “Twisted,” the album’s freshest, liveliest track, a militant beat and Usher’s soaring vocals is a brilliant slice of Prince-inspired pop crossed with Terence Trent D’Arby. The lyrics are completely non-sensical and involve twisting one’s skirt (and other body parts) to the left and to the right, but the playfulness is part of its charm. “Twisted” segues into the luscious, gorgeous “Dive,” a gem that would have sounded right at home on George Michael’s “Faith” album. Though Usher has said that the title track was inspired by his trek to Coachella, “Looking 4 Myself,”produced by Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun, sounds more like Usher was listening to ‘70s pop. Percolating “Numb” sounds like the follow-up to “Without You,” Usher’s collaboration with David Guetta, although the French DJ had nothing to do with the tune.
While much of the album is devoted to keeping and losing love and the pursuit of getting horizontal, on penultimate track, “Sins of My Father,” Usher addresses the damage done by growing up with an absent dad (among other issues). It’s one of his most personal, soulful tunes.
Usher and his team of producers and co-writers, which also include Will.I.Am, Diplo and Max Martin, have accomplished what feels like nothing short of a minor miracle in pop music today: they’ve made a diverse album that never sounds lost or disjointed. “Looking 4 Myself” will leave Usher looking for more room on his awards shelf.