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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Usher's Looking 4 Myself: A First Listen

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 3:30 AM


For some reason, I've always managed to ignore or miss Usher. "You Make Me Wanna..." is a classic, of course, but I managed to resist the supposed charms of "Yeah!," "Burn," "Love in This Club," and "Lil Freak." This year the Diplo-produced "Climax" stopped me dead in my tracks. So I'm willing to believe in this new album as a Pop Event. But we shall see.

"Can't Stop Won't Stop"

The Autotune-Eurosynth hybrid that's steamrolled everything in R&B's path ought to work in Usher's favor, and it does. Certainly better than Lil' Jon's budgeted single-note synth skeets, anyway. greases this one with sawtoothed dubstep verses, and no one wants to admit he really is good at that sort of thing. Good intro, slowly reveals itself to be less generic than it first seems.


"Got no drink in my hand but I'm wasted" isn't really a joke, but the stomping beat and "ooh baby, baby" call-response method of the verses (and then again in the more werewolf-level intonation of the chorus) is hooky. Yet the rush is so expedient, I'm already having trouble remembering how the song I heard just went. Not a bad thing of course, but not wise for a single.


Speaking of singles, I'm glad this piece of art, this ice sculpture of falsetto and curling smoke production, didn't exactly flop. The album debuted at No. 1, and I'll credit "Climax" over "Scream" if I wanna. This one's so sly that you know you remember it, but it's hard to remember which parts. The chorus is more of a stepping stone for the inevitable rewind back to those gorgeous verses. The stuttery beat isn't as weird or daring as the radio thinks, but it's indeed a mysterious pleasure the way it disappears and re-returns in its minimal glory. The main point is Usher fans just ascended a level. Maybe he hit their G-spot.

"I Care For U"

For a major pop event with a pretentious title, this record really blazes through without dwelling on itself. The dubstep synths, growling melody (which sounds uncannily like the work of a tricked-up Frank Ocean) and sneak-up chorus all just present themselves without announcement. He's the rare pop star who's working within one zone incredibly well, even though that junction itself is a subtle combo of genres. Gorgeous bridge -- I guess this record's his best singing ever huh?

"Show Me"

Man, who does this retro beat resemble -- is that faraway piano plink some vintage Moby? This doesn't immediately reveal itself as a house tune, but that's the pleasure of this album. It keeps morphing slowly. Even the requisite supporting synths sound "natural," if that makes any sense. Tuneful too, this one sounds like some lost late-'90s shit.

"Lemme See"

Those lo-fi whizbang synths and thin, marching band-simulating 808 snares worked for Nicki, so why not a vet with 15 years on her? More falsetto, less Bawse please -- "Looking like Trayvon Martin"? In the words of Future of the Left, come on Rick. I'm running out of ways to explain how each song here is catchier than the last.


Whoa, nearly halfway through and now this album decides to change up. If it's possible to call anything "retro Neptunes," this is it. Not retro like "Superthug," retro like literal shuffling '60s step-soul more in league with Raphael Saadiq than anyone associated with this song. The best track so far since "Climax," and it's a total about-face. The mechanized hit-maker diversifies.


I swear -- this has to be a Sigur Ros sample that he's singing fluttery, meaningless ballad phrases over. The intro to Agaetis Byrjun. I know it. It has to be. He's singing over it. Google turns up nothing. It's a goddamn conspiracy.

"What Happened to U"

In what's looking to be 71 minutes and 18 tracks, this superfluous slow one with its dumb "for my time I got money but money don't buy time" axioms is the first one that could be excised without spilling any blood. It's so passive that it hardly hurts, but how many 71-minute records can't be improved with a trim?

"Looking 4 Myself"

Lugubrious, palm-muted production reminiscent of say, a faster "King of Pain," with one of the more explosive choruses so far, this is almost R&B-as-contemporary-dance-rock with some juicy little falsetto pinwheels. The postcoital postchorus "woo-ooh-we-oo" would've bumped any '80s single up the charts. And though it may be codependent in the long run, the tune deflates the portentousness of the title by looking for himself and finding a girl instead.


It's astounding how many of these songs could be hits, and this one's a percolating dancefloor-filler with a "forever is a long long long time" hook and music that takes its cues from Rihanna's out-of-body lose-your-mind smash "We Found Love." So kudos, Mr. Raymond, as I'm crowning you king of the club. This has to be your best album by far, btw.

"Lessons for the Lover"

Clocking at five minutes as we sigh into the homestretch, and by far the most Luther-ian trad Quiet Storm on the premises, forgive me; this one just isn't to my taste.

"Sins of My Father"

Okay -- this is AWESOME. A dark little blues-tango-theater-reggae lament that stacks on the overdubs fantastically towards the finish, not to mention Michael Jackson-worthy choral and orchestral layering, this is the most ambitious, cinematic offering on the premises and maybe of Usher's whole career. "Confessions" is 8mm by comparison. Dig those swampy congas, that mercenary bassline, that devious chord change.


It's hard not to wonder if Nicki Minaj's ultimately excellent Roman Reloaded would've been received differently if the dance tracks were interspersed this cleverly, though her tracks are too abrupt to segue this seamlessly. Sometimes chart R&B's calculated smoothness has its advantages in album context too, as do irresistible rave-synth breaks, which live up to the title and come crashing down again on cue.


One of the best in show. The string sample isn't sap, it's swirling, rapid-fire fiddling, sawing the entire, otherwise minimal track to ribbons even as it carries it on its back. From "I think sex was made for strangers" to "We gonna do a whole lot," it's safe to assume our velvet-draped host knows what he's talking about. And if he claims to be above fantasizing, well who can blame a guy who's been in a position to freak whoever and whatever amen since his teens?

"Say the Words"

The retro-authenticity of Looking 4 Myself is verified by just how watery these textures are. I mean, talking pianos and keytar noodling! It's a testament to their comfort-food power that they elevate even some of the middling tracks, as evidenced here. And Usher himself has a pleasing way of staying in the shadows on his own tunes, a trick that's gotten even the likes of Bon Iver (I hate Bon Iver) through his own records.

"2nd Round"

A big anthem from the get-go, with a false start that then opts for some tricky production, disembodied chipmunk voices, and stuttering hi-hats. About tour sex: "Girl I'm in your town/ so come over." Despite the velveteen production, he's beginning to sound bored. But by now he's already gone far more than two rounds past yes, the "Climax." I'm dead-set on driving that joke into the ground.

"Hot Thing"

Awesome way to finish: the hardest beat on the record, with evil dying-Donkey-Kong synths a la "Milkshake," spinning-chamber-of-knives percussion and screwed-down response rapping. Bonus: the best thing A$SP Rocky's ever been part of.

So this album is a tour de force, with shockingly little filler for an overstuffed R&B record and shockingly little annoyance for hi-gloss pop production. Only three tracks need definitive pruning, and cutting any more than two after that would cause good ones to be missed. Maybe I'll go back and revisit My Way or Confessions after all.

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