By Daniel Garrett
Usher, Looking 4 Myself
Executive Producers: Usher Raymond IV,
Coup D’Etat & Mark Pitts
Mastered by Tom Coyne
Intense, with short phrases more spoken than sung, featuring shimmering sheets of sound, Usher Terry Raymond IV begins his album Looking 4 Myself with the song “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” (One of its lines is “I don’t wanna do all the normal things.”) Usher Raymond’s singing is assured, exuberant, flirtatious, and rhythmic within spinning, throbbing music—and describes an atmosphere in which desire, partying, status, and insult are all part of the mix. The next song “Scream,” confident, fast, and forceful, a bodice-ripper, if not a barn-burner, is about the level of sexual satisfaction Usher can bring to a woman: “relax and get on your back if you wanna scream.” It has a rampaging rhythm that is both artificial and dominating. Yet, in a masterful composition about separation from a lover and loneliness, “Climax,” Usher uses a beautiful falsetto voice that defies the clichés of masculinity and ugliness dominant in much contemporary music. That song is a work of excellence. Usher’s album Looking 4 Myself is ambitious, creative, intelligent, vulgar—an album for the culture as it exists now. I like it, and am glad that it keeps alive the promise of popular music, particularly African-American rhythm-and-blues.
It is easy to lose track of popular music, as new products perpetually are being introduced to the market. Yet, one can feel foolish for not knowing better someone who has been famous to many for years and years. I remember years ago hearing about Usher, but not being sure what he looked or sounded like, my attention having been given to jazz, rock, and world music—and then seeing a film involving gangsters in which Usher was featured (I think that was In the Mix in 2005), and liking it enough to wonder about what I had missed: after the 15 years-old Usher Terry Raymond IV’s self-titled debut album (Usher) in 1994, the Tennessee-born singer released My Way in 1997 and then Usher Live (1999), 8701 (2001), and Confessions (2004), with Confessions selling more than twenty-million copies around the world, preceding Here I Stand (2008) and Raymond v. Raymond (2010).
Usher Raymond has been recognized by the general public and by his peers; and he has received numerous awards, including from the Grammy academy, Billboard, Soul Train, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. His career is still expanding. For months before Looking 4 Myself was available, Usher spoke about his hopes for it. Spin magazine, with Rolling Stone one of the survivors among the popular print music magazines of the developing internet age, if not a dinosaur, offered some background for Usher’s Looking 4 Myself: in an approving commentary that acknowledged Usher’s drive, genuine depth, and the periodic hilarity of his erotic enthusiasm, writer Zach Baron declared, “In pop, the avant-garde is never where you think it is. It is true that Usher conceived of his new sound—he calls it ‘Revolutionary Pop,’ because people like Usher have long since given up being humble—after trips to Ibiza and Coachella, a festival he’d never attended before 2011…But he also noticed an audience he hadn’t yet seduced” (June 5, 2012). It is an amusing but true reminder that ambition never sleeps: popular artists test themselves and renew themselves as well as deepen their fame and wallets by meeting new audiences. Usher, having made good music with which to do that, need not apologize. Billboard magazine’s Erika Ramirez stated, “Looking 4 Myself finds Usher taking his core R&B fans on a ride towards global domination. And one has to be fearless for this ride” (June 8, 2012), listing some of Usher’s collaborators—among them, Diplo, Pharrell Williams, and Swedish House Mafia. The critical notice in the once bohemian and vital but now merely exhausted Village Voice, no longer a significant barometer of cultural value yet a sentimental favorite, gave its approval too: amid the empty desks in the paper’s office, its music critic Maura Johnston, so much better in print than when interviewed on the radio, found the energy and perspective to state, “Looking 4 Myself is a bit of a hodgepodge, a ‘something for everyone’ album where the results are mostly enjoyable” (June 13, 2012). Commercial radio stations have embraced the songs, as have Usher’s loyal admirers. I heard Usher interviewed on National Public Radio and was impressed by his eloquence and honesty, making me more inclined to listen to the song collection.
The music of “I Care for You” on Looking 4 Myself is hard to describe: hazy, intricate, squiggly, with throbbing rhythm, through which Usher’s voice comes from different directions; and it is one of the album’s more imaginative constructions. “I Care for You,” focused on a relation with a fascinating, judging woman, has a slippery beat with a taut rhythm and creates a nearly psychedelic aura that mirrors the turmoil of troubled romance. Its sometimes slow-paced vocal arrangement is rich. Usher’s singing is vibrant on “Show Me,” which declares, “Don’t worry about what they think of you—all you can do is live your life.” The repetition of the line “show me what you came here for” reminds me of the Jacksons when Michael was still a member. The tune’s arrangement is pristine but lively. Featuring a name-dropping rap, “Lemme See” is a song mostly focused on drinking and sex. The narrator insists that a woman follow through on her sexual promises; and the full range of Usher’s voice is impressive, whether using a handsome regular guy tone or an angelic falsetto. “Twisted,” a composition that encompasses silence and spoken word, and has a tiny, rumbling beat, is centered on a man who knows he let a woman make a fool of him, and it burrows beneath the surface—and sounds biographical; and Usher’s triumph is in the variety of his expressive singing within the interesting instrumental rhythm. Billboard referred to “Twisted,” which reminded me of Prince and Terence Trent D’Arby with its rough energy, as a fun retro 1960s soul track, but there is no dust on it.
“It’s raining inside your bed…loving makes you so wet…Ever since we first met, I knew I was ready, baby, to take that dive,” sings Usher in the obviously erotic “Dive.” The Village Voice’s Maura Johnston noted that the song “Dive” is a “stuttery, sweet-sounding song that will test its listeners’ tolerance for references to moisture of all kinds.” Certainly, the song’s imagery—romantic, sexual, surrealistic—is one of excess, but here Usher’s charm sustains it. His voice caresses and testifies and trembles, and yet achieves a pure tone. “When you give it all, you get it all,” sings Usher in “What Happened to U.” Material success, after hard work, is great but of limited value when you miss a lover, according to “What Happened to U.” Usher is not afraid of presenting a complex sense of being male—and that comes through in his voice. Usher as narrator says that while looking for himself, he ran into someone else—and “in order for me to find me I have to find you” he sings in the lightly syncopated composition “Looking 4 Myself.”
“If you don’t recognize what is real, then forever is a long, long time,” sings Usher in “Numb,” which has a tiny, electronic pulse throughout. Rhythm seems perception—with fast rhythm as a way of grasping and responding to experience—in the song “Numb,” in which Usher declares that “I only trust the things I feel.” It would be interesting to have Usher consider and write about something other than love, sex, and family (his charity work suggests some broader social awareness), but he has nothing to be ashamed of with this album, Looking 4 Myself. Usher is carrying on the work of a wonderful ancestral line that includes Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Maxwell: the lover as musical minister. Usher, with suave instruction, gives romantic advice—“let that argument turn you on”—in “Lessons for the Lover,” suggesting that almost anything in a relationship can be used to strengthen the bond, with the song’s tone seeming at once classical, electronic, and futurist, demonstrating that the little things mean a lot—in love, in music; but in the funky chug-chugging rhythm of “Sins of My Father,” sex appears as a form of witchcraft, part of a lasting, mythic betrayal, with sins passed from father to son, and the son paying the debt. “How could I prepare if my papa never was there?” the singer asks, before wailing like Marvin Gaye. “Euphoria,” the album’s closing tune about two people finding joy, is brassy, uptempo, a dance song, with echoes on Usher’s voice.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.