What Usher writes in the liner notes for his seventh studio album, Looking 4 Myself:
I finally let go of the me I was and stepped into the creativity that define’s my life’s purpose…I want to first thank all of the incredible people who worked with me to advance in the name of art, Contributions large or small created the artistic integrity that defines all of us…looking for ourselves.
What Usher really should’ve said in the liner notes:
Look, everyone. I’m used to being a really big pop star. I thought that I’d be able to follow my muse a little and explore a more mature side with Here I Stand, but it didn’t perform especially well given its’ commercial expectations. I was scared as hell, and so was my record label. So I followed it up with a lowest-common-denominator pop ‘n b album that wound up saving my career. My biggest hits since that time have been an inane pop record with will.i.am, and two dance singles with David Guetta and Pitbull. I want to keep my songs in the Top 10, artistic credibility be damned. So I’m going to basically hedge my bets. This record has a ton of electro music on it, but there are a couple of songs that remind people that I kinda sorta used to do R&B. Hopefully, I’ve played this formula right down the middle so people can buy it and I can continue to be Usher the superstar. Artistry? That shit’s for people who don’t sell records.
Yeah, I’m a cynic.
Truthfully, Looking 4 Myself isn’t a terrible album for what it is–a contemporary pop album very much in line with what contemporary pop music in 2012 sounds like. It’s just that much harder to take when you read all the hoo-ha Usher’s popping about artistic integrity when this album sounds largely like it was the result of a board meeting in which “we need hits!” was said at least 30 times.
I will say that it’s better than either Raymond vs. Raymond or the Versus EP, but it’s also possible that I feel this way just because my expectations have been lowered by the fact that those two albums were flaming piles of poo. Usher remains a gifted vocalist-the pulsing “Climax” proves that a great singer + great production=genius, but he often gets saddled (or saddles himself, since he cops songwriting credit for about half the album) with inane lyrics that boil down to strained sexual metaphors or vapid party exhortations.
The best songs on Looking 4 Myself are those that sound the least cookie-cutter. “Twisted” might suffer from the needless vocalizing of Pharrell Williams, but it’s got a very cool, neo-minimalist-meets-Motown sound to it. “Sins of My Father” is another winner. It comes off as a close relation to The Jacksons’ “Heartbreak Hotel” with a bit of a reggae kick courtesy of producer Salaam Remi. That man might be the most underrated producer in all of contemporary popular music. “Dive” is an atmospheric jam in the vein of the aforementioned “Climax,” while the title track has an uber-poppy flavor that actually comes off well.
Thing is, for every good (or promising) song on Looking 4 Myself, there’s a song like current R&B single “Lemme See,” which finds Usher joined by Rick Ross, one of those emcees whose success completely baffles me. I’ll ignore the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman reference in Rozay’s voice just because I can’t figure out why I’m insulted or not, but irregardless, the song does nothing for me. Neither do songs like “Scream” or “Euphoria,” both of which remind me of being 20 and spending my Saturday nights at Tunnel in NYC, then coming out with a blistering headache, smelling like cigarettes and poppers. Songs like those two are tailor made for “Jersey Shore” or spin classes, neither of which have any appeal to me.
Soul purists will definitely not find much to dig on Looking 4 Myself, and hell, there’s a chance that the contemporary pop audience might not, either. Usher’s attempts to remain culturally relevant now have an air of desperation, like those of the 40 year old man who’s still dancing in the club trying to pick up 22 year old women. While the album’s not a total failure, it does make me wish that Usher would, indeed, follow his own artistic heart and make music that reflects his experiences and maturity, not music that sounds good next to Katy Perry and Chris Brown on the radio.