This week, a couple of seasoned soul-music professionals are releasing new albums that toy around with sonar beeps and European club-music thumps, trying to find the ways that they can use these sounds to convey some serious emotion. In this particular corner of the internet, we’ve been hearing a lot more about one of those albums: Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe, in which the wizened legend, who narrowly avoided death earlier this year, throws his craggy and dessicated voice through dark, foggy, sparse tracks. Producers Damon Albarn and Richard Russell have given Womack tracks that sound like desolate warehouse districts late at night, and he’s given them vocals that stare sadly into the abyss. It’s a very good album. But I prefer the other one, the one where a young pop-soul perennial, a man who’s been famous for most of his life and who has been more commercially successful than almost anyone in the history of his chosen field, grabs the Euro-house sounds that currently dominate the charts, bending and twisting them until they suit his needs, giving a master-class in how a great pop musician can make a moment his own.
When you’re listening to Looking 4 Myself, it’s worth considering just what’s going on in pop music at the moment. Top 40 radio, as it exists right now, is all but unlistenable, as station managers have pushed playlists entirely in the direction of juiced-up oontz-oontz arena-club music, stuff that no longer even pretends at any connection to dance music’s underground past. This music has an absolute stranglehold on pop radio, to the point where it’s almost scary. Nothing breaks the thump, and radio programmers are happy to play the tone-deaf club-disco remixes of, like, Adele singles over the genuine article even though I can’t imagine the person who’d rather hear the remix. A few artists, like Rihanna and Lady Gaga, have proven intermittently capable of making fun and exciting songs that fit that style, but they’re exceptions. And when someone as ferociously talented as Nicki Minaj makes a song as obvious and craven as “Starships,” catchy though that song may be, it comes with the implicit acknowledgement from just about everyone that this songs exists entirely to get radio play. Usher has made this sort of zero-depth dance-pop before; it dominated long stretches of Raymond V. Raymond, his last album. But Looking 4 Myself is the album where Usher shows the world exactly what can be done with this song if a craftsman as sharp and clever as him gives it a go. It’s the album where Usher redeems that sound.
Listening to Looking 4 Myself, it also makes sense to consider Usher’s own biography, and the way his albums have lately tended to play off of his tabloid persona. Usher’s the sort of artist who doesn’t ignore the stories flying around about him; he capitalizes on them. So Raymond V. Raymond was his divorce album. Here I Stand, the one before that, was his marriage album. Confessions, the one before that, was his album about cheating on and breaking up with Chili from TLC. Those albums all had their own transcendent moments, but they suffered a bit under the pressure of summing up Usher’s public relationship with the world at that particular moment. And Looking 4 Myself comes at a moment when Usher hasn’t really been in the tabloids lately, when his story doesn’t really have any new wrinkles. Supposedly, the album has a lot to do with Usher’s search for self-discovery. And it does play around a bit with a few new sounds. But it doesn’t sound like Usher’s in a reflective or exploratory or experimental mood here. Instead, it sounds like Usher seizing his position as one of our greatest, most enduring pop stars.
Now: The album is a long way away from being perfect, and it has its own craven cash-in moments. “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” and “Scream,” the first two tracks on the album, are especially rough. Both are utterly bald and crass shots at radio dominance, just like “Starships,” and the album works best if you delete both from your iTunes immediately. First lyrics on “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”: “Ay! What’s up! This is a jam! Turn it up! Play it loud! In the club! This is fire! You’re burning me up!” Worst lyrics on the marginally better “Scream”: “There’s no drink in my hand but I’m wasted, getting drunk off the thought of you naked.” And the deluxe-edition bonus tracks are all pretty skippable, including the ASAP Rocky collab “Hot Thing.” But the real meat of the album starts with track three, the masterful Diplo-produced lead single “Climax.” “Climax” is a breakup song, but nobody seems to be assuming it’s Usher’s soul-baring divorce anthem; it’s just a good song about a breakup. The beat is an airly gorgeous thing, all airy synth-ripples and understated sound-effect vwerps, with an incandescent string arrangement from composer Nico Muhly. It’s not really a dance song, but it builds on dance-music sounds. And in his unearthly, effortless falsetto, Usher just floats above a track quirky and singular enough that most other singers would have a tough time navigating it.
But as far as I’m concerned, great as it is, “Climax” isn’t even the album’s highlight. There’s “I Care For U,” on which Usher builds a Prince ballad out of Skrillexy bass-stutters and video-game sound effects. There’s “Show Me,” an impossibly easy house-pop glide that feels aspirational just by existing. There’s “Twisted,” on which the Neptunes transform Cee-Lo-style jumped-up retro-soul into a jittery early-’00s off-kilter Neptunes stomper and Usher wails hooks all over it like early-’60s Marvin Gaye. And there’s “Dive,” an absolutely, gorgeously assured power-ballad that may or may not be a veiled cunnilingus anthem. Its key-changing high note is some Michael Jackson shit, the one moment on the album where I do the involuntary eyes-closed head-shake every singe time.
In the way Looking 4 Myself rewrites of-the-moment pop music as whatever Usher feels like doing, it reminds me a bit of FutureSex/LoveSounds, the 2006 album from Usher’s old rival Justin Timberlake. But that album was a full-length experimental team-up with a visionary producer who was peaking at that moment. Looking 4 Myself isn’t that. Almost every track features a different list of pop-music pros as its supporting cast. (At this point, even Diplo sort of counts as a pop-music pro, which is an interesting place for his own career to go.) When Usher wants to do Drake-style poor-little-rich-boy fucked-out regret, he recruits Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s own personal sonic mastermind. When he wants to do sleek, processed-guitar Euro-rock, he teams up with Empire Of The Sun’s Luke Steele, and the chemistry works just because these guys are on the same page about tickling your ear for four minutes. When he wants to do smoothed-out, maximal dance-pop, he hooks up with the Swedish House Mafia, then gives their sound more melodic push than it’s ever had before. Somehow, it all coheres into something immensely satisfying, a clear tribute to the talent of the man at the album’s center.
There’s still a prevailing tendency among plenty of indie types to ignore music like this, and to sniff at it. And its virtues sure as hell aren’t indie virtues. But Looking 4 Myself is worthwhile because it’s big-pop craftsmanship done absolutely right, and that, when it comes along, is a thing worth celebrating.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Bobby Womack’s beautifully dessicated Damon Albarn/Richard Russell team-up The Bravest Man In The Universe.
• Hot Chip’s latest glimmering disco-pop effort In Our Heads.
• Metric’s expensive-sounding new album Synthetica.
• The Tallest Man On Earth’s latest spare, scraggly folk album There’s No Leaving Now.
• Guided By Voices’ latest reunion effort Class Clown Spots A UFO.
• Waka Flocka Flame’s charged-up sophomore LP Triple F Life.
• SpaceGhostPurrp’s murk-rap 4AD debut Mysterious Phonk: Chronicles Of SpaceGhostPurrp.
• POP ETC.’s self-titled re-debut.
• Dent May’s psych-pop full-length Do Things.
* Diplo’s new Express Yourself EP.
• YOB frontman Mike Scheidt’s Southern-folk solo debut Stay Awake.
• Jaill’s fuzzy Sub Pop album Traps.
• Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ new album Trouble.
• Onra’s twinkling new dance EP Deep In The Night.
• The J Dilla unreleased-tracks collection Rebirth Of Detroit.