There should be a name for the kind of crisis that occurs between the status-anxious quarter-life type and the desperately youth-reclaiming midlife variety. That male, mid-30's freak out that masquerades as a nonstop party is an Atlantic trend piece waiting to happen, full of quotes from single-ish men who are too immature to know better or men that do know better and consciously flaunt their remaining immaturity.
"I could still remember dreams as a little boy," says Usher Raymond, 33, on his seventh album Looking 4 Myself. "Now I'm a man and still can't put down my toys, hey, hey, hey."
Well hey now. Looking comes two years after his divorce album, Raymond v. Raymond. That set wasn't exactly a meditation on his split from Tameka Foster, aside from the plaintively bureaucratic first single, "Papers," but it did represent a period of transition in this life we've been privy to since Usher was 15, when he released his self-titled debut. But now that the ink has dried and the wounds have healed enough to go ignored, it is time to have fun (and fuck and fuck and fuck).
Looking 4 Myself is an 18-song catalog of hookup scenarios. There are distinct lines drawn between sex ("for strangers," per "I.F.U.") and making love ("for the ones who plan to stay together"). There are grounded declarations ("I Care for U") and there are flowery descriptions of bodily functions (in "Dive": "It's raining inside your bed / No parts are dry / Love makes you so wet, your legs, your thighs"). There are junkyard funk come-ons ("Twisted"), there are club-music come-ons ("Scream"). There's one of the most sensually confusing ballads R&B has ever experienced, the Diplo-produced fascinator "Climax," which is not about an orgasm but a relationship on the decline, even though it sounds primed to facilitate baby-making… until the house beat launches during the song's actual climax.
Charming is of the essence of social promiscuity and, by extension, Looking 4 Myself. Usher is the best commercial R&B singer of his generation, and he never stops nailing it. His emotional range is vast enough to sell tenderness, lechery and wistfulness within minutes of each other. He prowls with ellipses on the highlight "I.F.U." ("I just want your undivided… / You should let me penetrate your…everything") and he makes "Dive," the aforementioned ode to secretion, actually sound sweet. (Contrast its lyrics and singing with Chris Brown's similarly-themed yet entirely revolting recent single, "Wet the Bed.")
Usher has the chops to match the expression, and his vocal range is even more impressive than his emotional one. He can tear the roof off of something as gauche as the Swedish House Mafia-produced "Euphoria," as he flips elegantly from his falsetto to chest-based pleading, and back. That falsetto, by the way, has developed into something that sounds as natural as a speaking voice. It's everywhere on this album, as it should be. With it, he's the picture of grace against shrieking synths. What a guy.
Charming is not just the proper mode for a guy on the town – it is what a pop star should be doing, too. What makes Looking 4 Myself work so well as an album is its alignment with Usher's playboy persona by smooth-talking, hooking you in and taking you for a ride all over the place. Looking is very much an iTunes album in that it dips through all kind of genres and moods, looking for that hit. You needn't consider what this commitment aversion means in the bigger picture to enjoy it.
With subtlety, though, comes a lack of earth-shattering insight. The closest Usher gets to introspection is on the title track, in which he talks about yearning to be the better man he was as result of a previous relationship. But then more songs come, and he rushes through euphoria (the sublime "Say the Words" sounds like it's employing clouds on backup) and lands on the final track "Hot Thing," in which he rhapsodizes a woman who moves like "she learned everything from the pole."
Introspection is fleeting, yes, but Looking 4 Myself makes a good case for the joy found in not settling down.
Photo via Getty.