Overlearning the lessons from 2008’s ballad-heavy, underperforming Here I Stand, Usher turned to the clubs for his 2010 divorce album Raymond V. Raymond, revitalizing his career but also releasing some of his worst singles. By Raymond’s companion EP Versus and its Max Martin-produced single “DJ Got Us Falling In Love,” Usher had gone full Night At The Roxbury, turning himself over almost completely to contemporary dance trends. But if his recent output has been a cautionary tale about Euro-pop’s corrupting influence on R&B, “Climax,” the Diplo-helmed lead single from Usher’s new Looking 4 Myself, demonstrates that it’s still possible to fuse R&B and electronic music in innovative, genuinely clever ways. Striking as they are, the track’s tweaked-out electronics are ultimately just subterfuge, disguising the magnificently supple slow jam underneath and, as befits a lament about unfulfilled desires, teasing a payoff that never arrives. The song asks listeners to follow it on a slow build to nowhere. In return for that trust, all it leaves them with is an aching sense of emptiness.
Though nothing else on Looking 4 Myself is as audacious as “Climax,” nor as revelatory, a similar sense of experimentation carries through many of its songs. The skronky “I Care For U” opens with dubstep bass wobbles, but instead of letting a beat drop, the track straightens itself out as it progresses, slyly skirting expectations. Usher performs a subtler, but no less satisfying trick on “What Happened To U,” spinning a typically downtempo beat from Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib into the album’s smoothest seduction. Both tracks toy with electronic textures while resisting the full-throttle thump of contemporary dance-pop, though there’s some of that on the record, too. Two overinflated dance numbers reuniting Usher with will.i.am and Max Martin, “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” and “Scream” open the album on a discouragingly perfunctory note. If there’s a bright spot to either, it’s that they forgo the garish Auto-Tune of Usher’s previous dance forays, so at least his whole register comes across cleanly.
Looking 4 Myself covers a lot of ground, from the modernized, shouting soul of “Twisted” to the jaunty new wave of the surprising title track, a catchy collaboration with Luke Steele of the Of Montreal-esque synth-pop band Empire Of The Sun. Not all of it works, but none of it is unpleasant, either, something that couldn’t be said of the previous releases from the single-and-on-the-prowl phase of Usher’s career. Unlike Raymond or Versus, with their dutiful adherence to Top-40 templates, a sense of freedom and exploration carries through Looking 4 Myself that makes it feel unique from any other Usher album. Although few of these songs rank among his best, it’s a pleasure to hear a great performer branch out, following whims and taking risks as he tests new ways to work his voice.