Let’s talk about “Climax” for a minute — the first single from Usher‘s seventh album Looking 4 Myself, a Diplo-produced bundle of ethereal synth and emotional bloodletting, is, without question, the best pop song flooding radio right now. The farthest thing from the R&B crooner’s massive 2004 hit “Yeah!”, it’s a stunning exercise in restraint and taste, a sleek heartbreaker that manages the generally rare feat of making a break-up sound impossibly sexy. If Usher Raymond IV plans on spending more time in post-divorce sad sack mode, which he’s at least doing in some small doses, he’s found an incredibly palatable way of doing so.
“Climax” does present a curious dilemma for Raymond, however. It’s such a singularly breathtaking track that whatever follows is inevitably going to seem somewhat underwhelming, even if its skeletal, haunting production doesn’t hit with all the force he’s got (and really, it’s too good for that anyhow). Usher doesn’t really bother trying to match it on Looking 4 Myself, though. Rather, he stacks up 14 tracks that take on an impressive array of diverse sounds, the breadth of which recalls Justin Timberlake’s triumphant FutureSex/LoveSound.
Before the album even has a chance to build up any momentum, however, it starts off with two of its worst tracks — “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” a club banger that lifts a hook from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” and “Scream,” a fairly forgettable house thumper with lyrical humdingers like “Got no drink in my hand but I’m wasted/ Getting drunk off the thought of you naked.” But whatever groaners he gets out of his system early on, he makes up for it with a string of much stronger, more emotionally driven tracks. As with “Climax,” in which he funnels his pain into a vulnerable falsetto, the best moments on Looking 4 Myself are those in which he’s most exposed, rather than simply horny. The sinewy throb of slow jam “I Care For U” (notice the Prince-like use of “U” and, in the album title, “4”) is far sexier than the tracks in which Raymond actually pre-games coitus, while the Pharell Williams-produced “Twisted” turns a relationship post-mortem into an upbeat Stax-style jam. And the title track, featuring Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun, dispenses with the big stadium-filling beats in favor of a subtler much more satisfying disco funk.
After having gone through some heavy denial on Here I Stand, and all the remaining stages of grief on Raymond v. Raymond (there’s a rebound sex stage, right?), Usher mostly revisits his anger, regrets and sexual urges on Looking 4 Myself. It’s not as devastating as Here, My Dear, by any means, though funky standout “Sins of My Father” certainly recalls “A Funky Space Reincarnation” in some respects. Rather, it’s a pop album for those on either side of the morning-after divide, something the broken-hearted and those looking to break some hearts. For all its instances of rehashing phoned-in club formulas or undercooked slow jams, Looking 4 Myself nonetheless stands as a strong whole. “Climax” alone would be worth diving into the album, but that it contains some of the best tracks in Usher’s catalog makes it worthwhile beyond the crowd pleasers.
Video: Usher – “Climax”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.