How Usher Became a Pop Music Institution

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 16 2012 6:16 AM

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

How Usher became a pop music institution.

Usher.
Usher in London in June

Photograph by Stuart Wilson/GettyImages.

“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 spit 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 teenager 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 one of only two performers who has had a No. 1 pop hit in each of the last three decades.* He’s an institution.

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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. Not everyone has been impressed, though. Writing on the Atlantic’s website, the critic Katherine St. Asaph called Looking 4 Myself an example of “the all-things-to-all-people blockbuster album, where stars try to conquer multiple markets with multiple sounds—and increasingly seem to surrender their own identities in the process.” The Boston Globe’s Sarah Rodman, noting Looking 4 Myself’s lengthy roster of songwriters and producers, lamented the toll that “groupthink” had taken on Usher’s “individuality and soul.” As for Usher: He compared himself to Picasso (“I went from being an artist to an artiste”), and deemed his genre-smorgasbord, with modesty worthy of Picasso, “a new sound experience … Revolutionary Pop.”

Revolutionary is a stretch. For Usher, Looking 4 Myself is business as usual. From the beginning, he’s been a promiscuous bandwagon jumper, glomming onto the latest sounds and trends. He started out in the mid- and late-1990s, singing plush hip-hop-soul come-ons in the vein of Jodeci and R. Kelly. At the height of the crunk craze in 2004, Usher took a long, deep gulp from Lil Jon’s pimp cup and recorded “Yeah!,” which went to the top of the charts in the United States and 10 other countries. In 2008, he hooked up with producer-songwriters Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, the duo behind Rihanna’s monster hit “Umbrella,” releasing his own “Umbrella”-esque melodrama, “Moving Mountains.” Lately, he’s followed Rihanna and Lady Gaga into the strobe-lit caverns of Eurodisco.

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