The r&b singer Usher is still the last artist to have a diamond album—which is to say that his 2004 record Confessions, which spawned the blaring Lil Jon–assisted club hit “Yeah!” and the searing breakup anthem “Burn,” has sold upward of 10 million copies since its release. (Adele’s 21, which has been selling steadily since its early 2011 release, passed the 9 million mark last month and will likely break the diamond barrier sometime this summer.) In the interim, he has sold reasonably well, had his personal travails serve as fodder for his life, and tried to keep up his megastar status in a time when pop stars exist much closer to earth. In 1999, 10 million album sales was seen as the record industry’s potential new normal, and the RIAA established the diamond certification to honor albums of that sales caliber.
How to conjure up the memories of the diamond-encrusted era, when pop stars seemed immortal? Looking 4 Myself (RCA), Usher’s seventh album, comes out of the gate with “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” credited to Will Adams (the non-domain name of the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am), Keith Harris (frequent will.i.am collaborator), and William Joel. Yes, that’s Billy Joel—the first 20 seconds on Looking 4 Myself contain a reworking of the doo-wop-borrowed “oh-oh-ohhs” from Joel’s 1983 MTV staple “Uptown Girl.” That a will.i.am composition would so nakedly borrow from the past isn’t at all surprising; he has blatantly interpolated the likes of Little Richard and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack in the past. But that it works so well is surprising—the cascading melody fits right into the rigid club form, and the whole thing comes off like a joyous flip of Usher’s somewhat dour will.i.am collaboration “OMG,” which appeared on his 2010 album Raymond v. Raymond and which ended that year as its fifth-bestselling song. (That single’s B side, the delighting-in-divorce “Papers,” was much better. Pity that digital singles don’t come bundled with second tracks automatically; another tragedy of the modern age.)
From there, Looking 4 Myself is a bit of a hodgepodge, a “something for everyone” album where the results are mostly enjoyable. The first single to be leaked from the record was “Climax,” a startlingly minimalist composition in which a woozy synth line and deliberately picked guitar serve as the backdrop for an anguished turn by Usher, who can evince pathos as well as anyone else. Although “Climax” the title might indicate that this slow jam is for getting down, the lyrics apply the word to its dramatic context; he’s singing about how the relationship at hand is headed only toward its denouement.
Releasing “Climax” first was a savvy move for Usher and his people—the song was produced by the pop-blender Diplo, while its string part was arranged by the locally based avant composer (and former collaborator of Björk and Antony Hegarty) Nico Muhly. Those musicians’ involvement helped it receive attention from those sorts of blogs who might normally turn up their noses at something as pedestrian as mainstream r&b while gushing over similarly minded acts with more “underground” pedigrees like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. That Usher gave a blistering vocal performance probably didn’t hurt much, either.
“Climax” is a bit of an outlier on Looking 4 Myself as far as experimentation, though the pleasures of that particular track are more than evident elsewhere on the album. (When you have 14 tracks to work with—and 18 on the deluxe edition!—you have a lot of wiggle room.) “Twisted,” a collaboration with the Neptunes’ Pharrell, is a slinky funk workout that could easily be mistaken for a present-day rework of an obscure soul side. Like “Climax,” its instrumentation is pretty minimalist (a closely recorded combo and a snaky synth), letting Usher’s powerhouse vocals take center stage. The combination of the instrumentation dropping out almost entirely on the pre-chorus and Usher going into falsetto mode makes you almost want to run over him with a cape and help him to somewhere he can be a little bit less tortured by the woman who is causing him to act out. “What Happened to U,” produced by Drake foil Noah “40” Shebib, has a similarly airy touch, with a gorgeous, lighter-than-air vocal performance (there’s that falsetto again!) that’s a bit dragged down by Usher’s attempts to emulate the dour superstar rapper’s swaggadoccio while sing-talking about drowning his sorrows in cars and other talismans of the Good Life.
Which isn’t to say that the only pleasures offered by Looking 4 Myself are of the minimalist variety. “Numb,” one of two collaborations on the album between Usher and the arena-filling dance act Swedish House Mafia, is lush, with rocket-launch synths backing him up on the pre-chorus; that leads into a big, wave-your-arms-friendly recitation of the song’s title, the kind that results in people cramming into open fields for festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival and other large-scale dance events where the need for communing with tens of thousands of other people over euphoria-inducing music is almost—if not more—important than actually seeing the performers responsible for it. (“Euphoria” is, not incidentally, the title of the album’s other Swedish House Mafia song.)
Usher’s knack for singing ballads is showcased well here, though he wears anguish better than a Don Juan hat. “Trading Places,” off 2008’s Here I Stand, was a decent-sounding slow jam slightly ruined by references to precoital Chinese food (hope there’s nothing too spicy in that order!) and the word “ass” as the song’s implied final utterance. This time out, there’s “Dive,” a stuttery, sweet-sounding song that will test its listeners’ tolerance for references to moisture of all kinds. (“I see the walls are looking like they might precipitate,” he sings at one point.)
Does Usher find himself on this album, as its title suggests? In some senses, yes; he certainly wears the simpler, lighter impulses of the new-school producers he has chosen to work with as well as he did the bluster of “Yeah!” and “Burn.” It probably won’t hearken back to the diamond era sales-wise—to do that these days, you have to seem “authentic,” sing of nothing but heartache and operate solely in a retro idiom, even when you’re working with pop’s most cloying chart presences—but it establishes him as someone who’s willing to push his musical efforts far past the four-on-the-floor-banger boundaries currently boxing in so many other mega-selling artists.