That Usher would arrive at Looking 4 Myself seems like a natural result of his musical Benjamin Button act. Even in the ‘90s, Usher’s earliest hits seemed to be significantly more adult contemporary than singles by his similarly aged contemporaries. “Can U Get Wit It,” “You Make Me Wanna…,” and “Nice & Slow” all sound today like songs K-Ci & JoJo’s uncle or Brian McKnight’s grandfather might have conceivably recorded, not someone still clinging to the tail end of their teen years. Rebellion arrived a few years later when Usher invited Lil Jon and Ludacris to shout “Yeah!” with him a couple hundred times. From then on, Usher has consistently scaled down his intended listener’s demographic details: The tormented “Caught Up” was followed by the puerile, rash-prone “Love in This Club,” which was in turn followed by Usher becoming best friends with a tweener from Canada. If Usher reached the sweet spot of equilibrium (i.e. the moment Brad Pitt reemerged in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looking like he stepped out of A River Runs Through It) with 2004’s Confessions, his regressive, infantile destiny was announced some years later with “OMG,” which remains compellingly idiotic fun, and “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” which mostly just seems idiotic.
In that sense, Looking 4 Myself, as the numerical substitutions in the album’s title and song cycle would suggest (to say nothing of the cover art’s depiction of Usher with a faux-hawk and neck tattoos), is something like baby Benjamin Button’s death, but it’s followed by an attempted resurrection. The album continues the trajectory charted above by opening with probably the single most perplexingly senseless piece of music in either Usher or producer wiil.i.am’s career—and in the latter’s case, that’s saying a lot. “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” is yet another dispiritingly hollow attempted revver-upper in the Pitbull/LMFAO mode, though one that frustratingly never busts loose, instead alternating between a synchronous, syncopated breakdown and a tacky interpolation of the bridge from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” That Max Martin’s more boilerplate club banger “Scream,” which follows “Can’t Stop” on the album, doesn’t come off as crass is only due to its proximity to what has to count among the lamest opening shots of all time. Unless that was the intention. I admit, it seems unlikely that many pop music artists would deliberately fake out their audience, but one has to wonder if Usher’s decision to open up what eventually reveals itself to be his highly nomadic tour through genres by picking up the moron baton from “OMG” wasn’t deliberate.
I’d like to think it was. Usher has said he was inspired to really broaden his horizons after a trip to Coachella. While that statement only confirms his interloper status, it also suggests that he was making a conscious choice to separate himself from the status quo represented by the album’s opening numbers. As if to drive the point home, the album’s third song, the Diplo-produced “Climax,” might be one of the best things he’s ever done. Boasting a spare, echoing sound that always seems to be on the verge of exploding into fireworks (no more so than when the strings begin swirling halfway through), “Climax” is an exercise in internalized sensation.
From this juxtaposition, Looking 4 Myself truly begins its journey, never settling on any style for longer than one song or two. “I Care for You” flirts with dubstep lite (whereas the haunting “Sins of My Father” goes further back with hints of just plain dub), the Neptunes-produced “Twisted” bests Bruno Mars at his retro, skinny-tie doo-wop game, and the album’s title track gets all electro-pop sunny with Empire of the Sun. Usher being Usher (and past being Versus himself), the album’s stabs at experimentalism venture only so far. It’s worth noting that he saves some of the most standard-issue R&B (“I.F.U.” and the aptly titled “Hot Thing”) for the deluxe edition, and ends the album proper with “Euphoria,” a Swedish House Mafia production that returns him back to square one. Maybe someday Usher will craft an album fresh from an investigative visit to Burning Man. Until then, the unavoidably uneven but fresh Looking 4 Myself will have to do.