How Usher Became a Pop Icon

PHOTOs reuters, MARIO ANZUONI

July 18, 2012, Wednesday/ 18:06:00

“I don’t want to do all the normal things that all these other normal dudes do,” croons Usher in “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” the opening song on his seventh studio album, “Looking 4 Myself.”

 He’s singing about sex, of course, but he could just as well be describing his career trajectory.

In music in 2012, all dudes who aren’t Usher Raymond IV are normal dudes. He’s the biggest male pop singer in the world; sometimes, it seems like he’s the only one, in a marketplace still dominated by divas. Since Justin Timberlake split the bit to concentrate on golf and SNL digital shorts, Usher has had no real challengers to fend off. The only male star of comparable stature, Justin Bieber, is Usher’s protégé. A couple of weeks back, Bieber’s “Believe” unseated “Looking 4 Myself” at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart, but I doubt this bothered Usher much. It’s an antitrust violation masquerading as a rivalry.

Like Bieber, Usher began his career as a teen idol, and for those of us who remember him in those days -- a teen-ager awkwardly wielding an adult-size canister of Spanish fly -- it seems improbable how he has stuck around, and thrived. At 33, he is the most reliable hit-maker of his generation. He’s sold 65 million records worldwide and had 20 top-10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including nine No. 1s. He’s the only performer who has had a No. 1 pop hit in each of the last three decades. He’s an institution.

There’s an institutional feel to Looking 4 Myself -- it’s as gleaming, well-manicured and capacious as a shiny new corporate campus. It’s less an album than an encyclopedia of contemporary pop, taking in at least a half-dozen subgenres, all of them trendy. There’s blaring four-on-the-floor club music, dubstep, ‘60s-ish neo-soul, ‘70s-ish neo-soul, ‘80s-ish electro-pop, and the kind of desolate “progressive R&B” that has lately become the rage in indie circles.

The mix of styles on “Looking 4 Myself” is not merely eclectic. Tonally speaking, it’s schizophrenic. The album’s lead single, the No. 1 R&B smash “Climax,” is the artsiest, most abstract recording of Usher’s career: a breakup ballad with an eerily atmospheric beat and a melody that drifts and wavers, never thickening into the kind of hook that powers most pop hits.

“Climax” was produced by the hipster favorite Diplo, with a string arrangement by wunderkind classical composer Nico Mulhy -- a production pedigree that seemed designed to woo the indie blogosphere. It worked.

But elsewhere on “Looking 4 Myself” there are exercises in plus-sized pop as crass as anything you will hear this year. “Euphoria” is an absurdly bombastic dance track, concocted by Usher and -- if I’m reading the production credits right -- a few hundred thousand Scandinavians.

On “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” Usher teams up with will.i.am, who specializes in ingeniously silly dance music. The song places a pummeling 4/4 dance beat behind a synthesizer refrain borrowed from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”; the lyric offers a remedial pop music User’s Guide, on the off chance that the record reaches the antennae of an extraterrestrial: “Hey, what’s up? / This is a jam / Turn it up / Play it loud / In the club.”

Usher glides from song to song, from style to style -- from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again -- with assurance and commitment; unlike most megapop albums, there’s not a complacent moment on “Looking 4 Myself,” and there is no bad music.

Usher’s main theme is unsurprising: sex. His sound shape-shifts; flavor-of-the-day producers are hired and disposed of; but his songs always move in one direction: toward the boudoir. He’s an R&B Casanova in the classic mold. Over the past decade, R. Kelly’s slow jams have turned freaky, ironic, comic; other singers have followed suit. But Usher is a traditionalist, a preservationist. He has unironic faith in the old Love Man verities and the time-tested Love Man tools -- strategically deployed melisma, oily come-ons, oilier pectorals. In “I.F.U.,” a bristling ballad on the “Looking 4 Myself” deluxe edition, Usher minces no words: “You should let me penetrate your everything.”

Usher’s songs ooze egotism -- like all R&B lotharios, he’s a preener. But he’s not glib. With “Confessions” (2004), the 10 million-selling blockbuster that is still his finest album, Usher’s songs took a darker turn, exploring the moral and spiritual toll of macking. On “Looking 4 Myself,” he’s at his best when the emotional stakes rise and the sex gets complicated.

“Lessons for the Lover” is as genuinely kinky a song as any I’ve heard in a while: a paean to angry sex, the way a lovers’ quarrel can become an aphrodisiac. (“So my advice would be / No, don’t leave, don’t go so easy, no / Just let that argument turn you on / It’s worth it.”)

Usher’s singing on “Looking 4 Myself” is terrific. In pure chops terms, he’s as gifted as any star of his generation, a singer and dancer of ludicrous magnetism and virtuosity. On the new album, he has history on his mind: channeling James Brown in “Twisted,” impersonating Prince in “Say the Words,” even doing his best Daryl Hall on the ‘80s-flavored title track. Usher’s real model, of course, is Michael Jackson. He’s not a genius like Jackson -- the true pop revolutionary. But is there a black male crossover star who can make a better claim to Jackson’s mantle?

Jody Rosen, © Slate 2012.

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