Usher - Looking 4 Myself

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.

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Comments (72)
  1. woozefa  |   Posted on Jun 12th, 2012 +13

    good one, guys! now what’s the real album of the week?

  2. Dear Tom,

    What have you done?

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  4. Might check this out if it keeps getting good reviews, especially if the FutureSex/LoveSounds comparison holds up.

  5. I really love “In Our Heads” and was hoping that would be Album of the Week, but I don’t really get all the Usher hate. “Climax” was awesome. I’m definately going to be checking this one out.

  6. This review, just like the Miranda Lambert review a while back, is exactly why Stereogum is the best. I would have written this album off in fear of losing my indie-cred, but after reading this thoughtful and interesting take on the album I’m willing to take a shot with it. P4K this site is not, and that’s precisely why I love it so much. Good work.

    PS. In Our Heads is still better though :)

    • “P4k this site is not”? When Pitchfork gets around to reviewing this album this week, it’s going to get a high 7 or low 8, much like the Beyonce and Justin Timberlake albums, and then possibly wind up on their year-end list. They already named that Diplo-produced track off this “Best New Track.” It’s not outside of their realm to praise something like this.

      Anyhow, I don’t have an issue with saying this is a good album, but my loyal indie heart honestly thinks that out of respect for hard-working indie artists, fit might have been better if some well-worded support and praise was thrown toward Hot Chip or what have you. This Usher album already has enough mainstream press and ton of marketing from its major label vested in it and it will without a doubt go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the coming weeks with or without Tom at Stereogum advocating for it. I was surprised at how little promotion the new Hot Chip album was given being it’s their Domino debut, and it’s a really solid and fresh-sounding electronic album that surprised me because there hasn’t been a ton of buzz from the indie sites about it.

      • Just to clarify, I wasn’t speaking specifically about this review with the P4K comment, I just meant that SG tends to be much more accepting and open-minded when it comes to things/albums like this….IMO, of course.

      • This is true. IIRC, this was mainly why R.A.P. Music was selected over Bloom a few weeks ago for AOTW. Though I guess that’s a little different because it was prematurely evaluated, but I believe the point holds true.

      • Very well said, Michael_.

        No disrespect to Usher, even though I don’t like him or his music, anyone who regularly visits this site (such as myself) couldn’t possibly give less than a fuck about his new album. If I want to be updated on Usher, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, etc then I wouldn’t log onto Stereogum. C’mon you guys…

    • Not so sure about the P4K comment; they gave “Climax” a BNM and had FutureSex/LoveSounds on the end of decade list. I do think Pitchfork has a bit of an unfair reputation based on how it used to be.

  7. i’d be scoffing at this too if i hadn’t seen those snl performances a few weeks ago

  8. I generally feel the editors of Stereogum are far more open-minded than its commenters.

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    • I don’t know, but it seems to me that it’s ridiculous for you to be here then. Sort of like trolling around the comments section of Jezebel.com and complaining that they don’t do enough articles on men and the problems they face.

      What’s it like being a professional troll? I am curious about what brought you to this point? Did the girl who dumped you like indie music a lot? Are you just generally unhappy about life. Let’s hug it out bro. It’s not your fault. Listen to me, it’s NOT your fault.

  11. A decent singer, but have we ever heard a song that he completely crafted without help? How involved in the artistic process of his music is he?

  12. woozefa  |   Posted on Jun 12th, 2012 0

    wow, usher’s street team is really hitting stereogum hard today.

  13. Bobby Womack comes out with a great album, his first in 13 years — and you promote Usher?

  14. It feels like I’m the only person on earth who absolutely loves The Tallest Man on Earth’s new album…

  15. Wintersleep’s new album came out today. Sounds pretty good on first listen…

  16. As good as this album is, and it’s good but not on par with Confessions, I feel like this decision was made mostly out of contrarianism because obviously The Bravest Man in the Universe and In Our Heads are better.

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  19. woozefa  |   Posted on Jun 12th, 2012 +7

    also, why can i up/down vote certain posts but not others? is anyone else experiencing this?

  20. I really thought Tallest Man or Hot Chip would win this week to be honest

  21. NO NO NO. Usher you CANNOT get away with replacing a number for a word in an album title, this is NOT a deep-ass text message (but then again, who actually talks like that in texts?), jeezus the word is only 3 letters long. People these days

  22. Pretty big fan of this article. I don’t even like Usher but this album is gorgeous, especially the songs produced by Diplo & 40.

    However, one line irked me, as I am a radio programmer. “Radio programmers are happy to play the tone-deaf club-disco remixes of, like, Adele singles over the genuine article.” There are zero top-40 format stations in major markets in the United States that play remixes of Adele in regular rotation. They all play the originals.

    • Although most stations do play original Adele, the author means generally just club versions of non-club hits. A lot of Top 40 stations will play “remixed” versions of hits that are outside the general “untz untz” club-house format they usually play. For example, a lot of em play a remix of “Somebody That I Used To Know” which is literally just placing a club beat behind it because they feel it’d fit their format better. The writer’s point, I think, is just that pop radio loves club beats.

  23. is future of the left’s LP out this week?? have you guys stopped reporting about them for some reason? that blog post falkous directed at p4k the other week was superb

  24. Usher’s album is a cry far from a standard Euro-club oontz-oontz trash, but does that suffice to call it very good? Hardly. Surely, Diplo et al. are involved, but it reminds me more of, errr, a Bionic sort of affair. sometimes it’s better to simply acknowledge the obvious: both Hot Chip and Bobby Womack delivered the great albums, Usher did not.

  25. Everyone’s acting like promotions like these are such a “great” and “honest” move by Stereogum, because it displays open-mindedness and rejects the stereotype that publications like these prefer to just name drop or promote “I’ve never heard of them, so they must be terrible” bands. The truth is that this is just another trendy-friendly move: to promote and grab on to what’s actually popular or backed by the majority (seeing as how youth has moved toward “indie” and rejecting the mainstream). It makes sense then, because it’s trendy to be UNtrendy.

    But this is just….sad. I think someone’s already mentioned it, but Usher’s album is going to get PLENTY of attention, hype, and promotion without Stereogum’s help. The POINT of sites like Stereogum (at least how it seemed to me originally) was to promote and give a voice to the lesser known artists who are struggling to be heard in a sea of Ushers….The last thing those hard-working bands need is a slap to the face from the publications that they could finally trust on.

    In fact, why don’t I read you the “About” section from Stereogum directly:

    “Stereogum.com was one of the first MP3 blogs and remains the leading online community for INDEPENDENT and ALTERNATIVE music news, downloads, and videos. Its audience includes passionate music fans, industry folks, and household names like Kanye West, Ben Gibbard, and Ryan Adams.”

    Please note that I left that second sentence in there, because it says “audience”…NOT “subjects.”

    This is why this site has started to sicken me. (That sounds overdramatic, but it’s true.) It’s a smack in the face to all of the TRULY independent bands who are working their asses off. They get looked over throughout the ENTIRE mainstream music industry on a day-to-day basis. They don’t need to get shafted by the independent and alternative music industry as well.

  26. Calm down, everyone.

    I’m pretty sure this feature is not meant to say “Hey, this is the absolute best album that’s coming out this week!” Rather, it’s more like “Hey, this album is coming out this week, and here’s some of our thoughts about it.”

    And, not matter how you “feel” about this album and/or artist, here we all are talking about it. So, there you have it.

    Life…uh…finds a way.

    • No it’s not…it’s called “Album of the Week” for a reason; because it’s chosen as best of the week. Plus, the whole POINT is that we’re talking about it……..we shouldn’t. If you see what I wrote in the comment above, this site, by their own definition, is meant for the community of independent and alternative music (neither of which Usher is). I may as well be on XXLmag.com or Billboard.com.

      Your comment is about as apathetic as they come.

      • You should read the article, Robert. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, I think the last paragraph was written especially for you.

        Also, who’s to say Usher isn’t “alternative”? I never listen to the guy, so he would be an alternative to my normal listening habits. So… yeah.

        Opinions! We have them!

  27. Take that and rewind it back, Stereogum got the words that make your booty go *clap*!

  28. This is a very, very good example of what it is. I’m already hearing totally different things on the second listen. Really, I don’t see a problem with celebrating it; but I would never have given it a chance if it hadn’t been featured here.

    Stereogum, whether or not it’s violating its indie mandate, has reliably good taste. I haven’t been able to say that about Pitchfork for a couple of years now.

  29. This album is a very, very good example of what it is. I’m already hearing totally different things on the second listen. And I wouldn’t have given it a chance had it not been featured here.

    Stereogum, whether or not it’s violating an unspoken and surely obsolete indie mandate, displays consistently reliable taste, and that’s why I read it. I haven’t been able to say the same about Pitchfork for a couple of years now.

  30. stereogum, im really happy for you being diverse n’ all but WHERE THE INDIE MUZZZZIK AT???

  31. Most of us grow out of this evil mainstream bullshit. Eventually, if you really love music, labels, eras, the back catalog, personnel, methods, etc. cease to matter. In the end it’s what comes out of the speakers and that is it. I’m even growing out of my hating metal phase a tad with Burzum.

    It was this one dude’s favorite album this week. Some are immediate pleasures, some take a while to sink in.

    Stereogum defender forever. Once again, it’s free you assholes.

  32. I was actually a little stunned to see this as AOTW, and boy was I happy. This was a great week for albums – I bought five – and this is the one I can’t stop playing. For me, Usher is the best voice in pop, and I’d always hoped he could come up with a strong full-length. Tom got it just right; the first two tracks are crap, the rest are excellent. It is a pity this one had to come up against Hot Chip, though, I do think their new one is also their best.

  33. Ushers adams apple…

  34. That album art gives me crazy Sisqo vibes.

  35. This album was awful, with the exception of a few decent songs. I don’t understand the indie validation of highly commercial cheesy pop music. You cease to become a legitimate voice for alternative music culture when you go out of your way to pander to lamestream sensibilities. It’s not about being a snob, it’s about maintaining integrity as an indie music publication. If the site covered all music indiscriminately, people wouldn’t care much. But it’s the illusion of presenting oneself as an alternative outlet and then featuring the very opposite of what you’re suppose to represent… it is why some people are scrunching up their faces at the computer screen when they see artists like Nicki and Usher get praise here for such god-awful lazy pop music.

  36. Seems like a pretty good mainstream album (meaning, lyrics are generally dumb but it’s pretty sweet to listen to). But Pitchfork already prepared for the “cool mainstream album to listen to between your indie-rock bands”, so you’re a bit late :)

  37. Looking 4 Myself is an exceptional album and a great choice. But…In Our Heads is easily the best album of the year so far…

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