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.

Listeners who equate stylistic consistency with integrity don’t look favorably on this kind of carpetbagging. Usher has different values. His motto, he told Spin, is “evolve or evaporate”—a sound creative credo, and an irrefutable business strategy. Usher has a bit of Tony Robbins in him: He’s a careerist who likes to talk about his success, and wax New Agey about it. “Knowing there is still love for me in the marketplace,” he said in 2006, “gives me energy.”

In this respect, Usher is an archetypal man of his pop generation. Our musical artistes have always been les hommes d’affaires—but where yesteryear’s stars were discreet about their grubby marketplace machinations, Usher and company flaunt them. With the record industry in ruins, musicians can’t pretend to be above hucksterism, kicking back in their manor houses and watching the album royalties roll in. Usher maintains a ruthless focus on what’s next, while sprinkling his stardust across multiple platforms—offering peekaboo glimpses of his personal life to the tabloids, working his Twitter feed, hyping his cologne (“Usher VIP is a confident, charismatic, masculine scent … a signature woody fragrance warmed by spices of nutmeg and exotic saffron”). In his songs, Usher celebrates workaholism and its rewards. “What Happened to U,” on the new album, pretends to be a plaint about the emptiness of success; actually, it’s a boast. “Money, clothes, fancy cars / Big old cribs, platinum on the wall / Seven Grammys, sold-out concerts / Damn, I've been working hard,” goes the chorus.

Usher’s main theme, though, is an unsurprising one: 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.” Then there’s “Lemme See,” the latest single:

She says she wanna take her skirt off
Be my guest!
I decided to take my shirt off
And show my chest
And we been sipping on that Merlot
So you know what’s next
Working intermissions, switching positions
We so explicit

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.”) Recently, a new wave of revisionist Love MenFrank Ocean, The Weeknd—have given R&B a bleak, angsty overhaul. But Usher got there first, with less self-importance, and far punchier hooks. On “Climax” he throws down the gauntlet—firing his hair-raising falsetto at Ocean, The Weeknd, and other critics’ darlings.

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?

Usher doesn’t think so. Three years ago, in his performance at Jackson’s memorial service, Usher made his case. “Michael, you mean so much to everyone. Especially me,” he intoned, before launching into the ballad “Gone Too Soon.” Halfway through, Usher rose from his seat onstage, walked down a ramp, and placed his hand on Jackson’s casket: the heir receiving the blessing of the master. It was a moment of astonishing kitsch; it was also a great performance, with Usher singing, exquisitely, at the very top of his falsetto range. Normal dudes don’t have that gall—and normal dudes can’t hit those notes.

Correction, Feb. 12, 2014: This article originally misstated that Usher was the only performer who has had a No. 1 pop hit in each of the last three decades. Britney Spears has also achieved this feat.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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