If there’s anything you ever needed to know about the psychology of Usher Raymond IV, it’s that he once proposed to his then-girlfriend, TLC’s Chilli, mid-coitus. In a phenomenal 2004 Rolling Stone profile, the singer remembered how his friend told him to do it (Chilli “didn’t take him seriously,” obviously), but that he never officially popped the question (ring, knee, not whilst boning, whatnot) because, “I felt like I was in a desert, running, and then there was this mirage. It’s beautiful, but wait a minute: let’s make sure it’s real.” Check the medical library – you’ll find him in the DSM-5 textbook under “commitment phobia.” Clearly Usher evolved, though he’s musically hovered in a permanent state of manchildishness: His best songs since have celebrated lusty irresponsibility, perfect chart fodder as well as narrative filler. From “Confessions” to “My Boo,” “Love in this Club” to “OMG” (minus the throwaways from his oppressively boring mid-marriage record, Here I Stand), Usher’s narrative arc has been remarkably similar to that of Don Draper — an impossibly smooth super-talent who spends half his life playing, and the other half paying for it.
“He is a pharaoh of sensuality, even making a song about going down (“Dive”) sound ready for FM radio, and he can do versions of your music better than you.”
Looking 4 Myself is the post-divorce, West Village apartment phase of this analogy (in Mad Men parlance: season four). The title track as a statement is obvious enough — Usher is trying to get back to his best self over a yacht-rockish, Phoenix-aping melody. It dovetails with mid-album ballad “What Happened 2 U,” produced by Noah “40” Shebib and therefore deeply Drake-ian in its baby-skinned reflection and emotionally cascading chords. “What sense does it make to have everything/ And nothing at the same time?” Usher wonders. “Where are you? I need you/ I’m looking for you. Girl, come and share all this.” It’s a sincere, wistful look back at his career, at least until he lets his Id ad-lib, “want your booty, two at a time.” Once you’ve had everything, it’s damn hard to economize. But it wouldn’t be Usher otherwise: seducer extraordinaire, his every sentiment is panty-dropping, even in moments of reflection. His loneliness ekes out like a pheromone.
It’s appropriate that this album drops at a moment when electronic music is trying to find itself — Usher’s 2008 “Love in this Club,” produced with strobe-light synths by Polow da Don, foreshadowed pop R&B’s eventual turn into techno. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing as of late about the state of electronic music — or, as corpo-cashmongers have rebranded it for the masses, “EDM.” The infiltration of sometimes watered-down dance sounds into the pop charts was fine when it juiced careers, but as it becomes a staple — and a big-time moneymaker — conflicts have emerged. This week, Calvin Harris reportedly got kicked off the tables at a Steve Wynn–owned hotel for playing too much EDM and not enough hip hop in the self-proclaimed “American Ibiza” that is Las Vegas. It’s getting a little too dissonant for comfort. Harris, after all, is responsible for Rihanna’s current hit “We Found Love,” a thrilling bit of pop-dance crossover that also shows how deep R&B and hip hop’s demands have become for techno synths and rinsed-out crescendos. And it’s no doubt that electronic accouterments have injected R&B with some vitality, though the soul-searching goes both ways: If contemporary R&B singers lean more and more towards pop and dance, where does the soul go? The variable in both sides of the equation is, as ever, whether the interest lies in simply pop-churning for big bucks or adding pushing the style forward. (But it’s not a binary, trust.) Perfectly, while writing “Love in this Club,” Usher and Polow were influenced by partying … in Vegas.
So when Usher dropped “Climax,” the first single from Looking 4 Myself, it served to further dissolve boundaries between pop, R&B, and dance. Produced by Diplo, who underground dance fans may still claim but who’s become as big as many of his counterparts in hip hop, Usher’s lusty falsetto churns with the kind of torrid soul he’s a champ at, which slithers handily between Diplo’s diamond synths. It’s a singular example at keeping genre integrity while still making music for the charts — or, more appropriately, every straight girl and gay boy in the world. Yet Usher doesn’t escape “EDM” trappings completely. Swedish House Mafia’s “Euphoria” — a slightly subtler moniker than anything Madonna’s come up with for rave-era reboot — still analogizes doing it with popping molly. It’s nothing new, but coupled with jacking blurps it’s bespoke for big tents and/or the Planetarium. And the weird rave-ification of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” melody on “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” which finds will.i.am refining his “OMG” clurrb impulses with thoughtfully meted-out wobble, is a restrained surprise from a gifted producer who tends to spooge on his own band.
Meanwhile “Twisted” plops Usher on a Stax-influenced Pharrell beat with a hit-the-spot measure of sub-bass, and one of Skateboard P’s better features since “Drop It Like It’s Hot”: “20 of us on Vespas and Mopeds.” Way to get into the spirit of the era! Usher swerves into the Adele lane a few times, doing his savvy best to totally dominate all radio formats — besides “Twisted,” there’s the dubwise soul of “Sins of My Father,” which blames Usher’s infidelities on his pops (classic!) and was recorded with Salaam Remi, who was working on Usher’s Amy Winehouse collabo before she passed. And the silky slink of “I Care 4 U,” limber over wobble bass by Timbaland protégé Danja, inevitably leads one to wonder where Aaliyah would be had she lived (answer: ever ahead of the curve). Yet Usher’s experimentation isn’t totally original. It’s a showcase for his gymnast’s voice, and underscores the point: He is a pharaoh of sensuality, even making a song about going down (“Dive”) sound ready for FM radio, and he can do versions of your music better than you. Maybe the mid-climax marriage proposal is not a window into his music, but vice versa: Usher Raymond is at his best when putting it on, not least because he makes it look so easy.