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Usher, ‘Looking 4 Myself’ (RCA)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: June 12, 2012
Label: RCA

To the list of revelations that mankind has had while dancing at 4 a.m. on the Spanish island of Ibiza, let us now add Looking 4 Myself, Usher’s seventh studio album and his best since 2004’s Confessions. Let us also note that Usher pronounces “Ibiza” with the soft Catalan lisp that is correct, but nevertheless shiver-inducing, no matter how many times you hear a certain kind of worldly person attempt it. As in: “I went to Coachella, and I went to Ibitha….”

I know this because I heard Usher do it over the phone a couple months ago. I’d been granted a few minutes to talk to the singer about “Climax,” his new album’s smoldering, Diplo-produced first single. It’s the kind of weird song that gives you hope. The bridge is by downtown composer Nico Muhly. There’s no hook, no drop, only the lightest impression of drums. Just a sad, minimal chord progression and Usher’s hot-blooded falsetto, tracing a wound. I wanted to ask Usher, a mainstream R&B star, how he had come to make such a weird song, with production from a known weirdo like Diplo, with all these weird slithery noises in it, when he cut me off.

“Why,” he asked, with hurt in his voice, “do you keep saying weird?”

In pop, the avant-garde is never where you think it is. It is true that Usher conceived of his new sound — he calls it “Revolutionary Pop,” because people like Usher have long since given up being humble — after trips to Ibiza and Coachella, a festival he’d never attended before 2011. But it’s also true that his biggest hits during the past few years have come from (“OMG”), Max Martin and Pitbull (“DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love”), and David Guetta (“Without You”) — four of the biggest international dance stars on this planet. Now 33, Usher has been doing this, the work of a pop savant, for more than half his life. In Ibitha, and during Animal Collective’s set at Coachella, he heard sounds that were new to him, sure. (He seems to have been impressed by Arcade Fire’s haircuts, anyway.) But he also noticed an audience he hadn’t yet seduced.

So, on Looking 4 Myself, Usher teams with Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele (blame Jay-Z), Swedish House Mafia (twice!), and the aforementioned Diplo; at the same time, he brings back Martin,, and rap stalwarts Danja, Jim Jonsin, Salaam Remi, and Pharrell. Rick Ross is here, talking about Trayvon Martin, “Chanel hoodie on.” On “What Happened to U,” Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib samples Biggie’s “One More Chance,” of all orthodox things. Slow-burn tracks like “Climax” and “I Care For U” make a fetish out of withholding; “Scream” and “Euphoria” have bigger drops than most Skrillex songs. In an era when niche rules and most artists are busy trying to find their own inner, special, viral weirdo, Usher has gone the other way. He’s doing it all at the same time. He is all weirdos at once.

Poignant in regret (we’ll get to that), Usher is downright hilarious when aflame. “Girl, you are my sugar shop,” he offers on club cannon-fodder intro “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” adding, “Let me be your body soap.” On “Scream,” he goes to that “The Most Dangerous Game” place: “Tonight you’re the prey, I’m the hunter.” “Dive,” from the same Jim Jonsin/Rico Love/Daniel Morris team that wrote Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation,” wades into the sexual deep end, then way beyond the deep end, into the ocean, or perhaps its own watery planet. “I see the walls are looking like they might precipitate,” Usher croons, surveying the scenery, before concluding, “It’s raining inside your bed.” The word “lifesaver” is employed. And who would want it any other way?

But Usher is at heart a man loyal to his own talent. “Show Me” is sweet, a throwback to the ’90s R&B and rap fusion that made him a star in the first place. “Twisted,” with Pharrell, is another formalist exercise, this time in ’60s soul-man showmanship — those drums! And on the “40”-produced “What Happened to U,” Usher retakes ownership of depressive, atmospheric R&B from Drake, who will have to live a while longer before he comes up with anything as pithy and self-indicting as “one too many, two at a time.”

We could lie and say it all comes together on “Sins of the Father,” the menacing Salaam Remi production on which Usher simultaneously seduces his latest femme fatale and castigates himself for the legacy of infidelity and bad behavior left to him by his absent father. But these days, as Looking 4 Myself makes clear, introspection is just another tool, like dubstep, or a Rick Ross cameo — it’s about how many platforms you can occupy simultaneously as much as it is about how many tears you’ve shed. The great thing about Usher is that he means it all equally, the romantic advice (“You fall hard / But think about how hard you come”), the sorrow, the subversion of the dance floor, and the exhortation to get on it. Just don’t try and tell him there’s anything weird about that.