What's Behind Pop's Multiple-Personality-Album Epidemic?

Usher's Looking 4 Myself shuffles cynically through other artists' styles to conquer disparate fanbases. But maybe it and other recent sales-chasing releases don't have to.

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Usher titled his new album Looking 4 Myself; the joke here is obvious. If Usher went looking for himself, then along the way he found will.i.am in a tricked-out studio, up to his normal gimmickry: In this case, repurposing the hook from Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" for the club chant-along of "Can't Stop Won't Stop." He found Max Martin and recorded a single, "Scream," that sounded exactly like the material from their last collaboration, the Martin-heavy 2010 album Raymond vs. Raymond. For the earlier single "Climax," he found producer Diplo laying down the same cloud of lonely electronica that trendy R&Bers the Weeknd and Frank Ocean have recently wandered through. Elsewhere, he found Pharrell on "Twisted," doing what Pharrell generally does. He found dance behemoths Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta doing what they generally do. He found dubstep—another sound of the moment—via Danja for "I Care 4 U," which isn't that dissimilar from the identically titled Aaliyah track. He found indietronica with Empire of the Sun, restraining his voice on "Looking 4 Myself" to match theirs. He even found Amy Winehouse's old collaborator, Salaam Remi, and tried some of his rickety melodrama for the histrionically titled "Sins of My Father."

If it's unclear amid this picaresque whether Usher ever found himself, the market doesn't mind. He's scored hits across its major demographics: pop ("Scream"), urban ("Lemme See" and "Climax"), and critical ("Climax" again), with potential follow-ups in the hopper for them all. None of this is new for Usher; as The Guardian's Alex Macpherson points out, he's always latched onto the dominant musical trends, whether creamy R&B (much of 2001's 8701 and 2004's Confessions), Lil Jon cameos ("Yeah!") dance-pop (almost every Raymond vs. Raymond single). Nor is there any compelling reason to doubt Usher's explanation for the stylistic spread: Like thousands before him, he said, he found inspiration at Coachella's dance tents. But it's even less surprising compared to almost every major pop release this year. We're in the age 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.

This year, it seems that most pop albums aren't merely singles albums but singles albums where none of the singles even sound alike.

Consider Nicki Minaj, whose Roman Reloaded is split so evenly between urban and pop radio fare that it's practically a double album. It's the sort of collection that contains the Angela Lansbury freakout of "Roman Holiday," a string of more-or-less straightforward rap tracks, the R&B single "Right By My Side" (which could be a Rihanna demo were it not for an inconvenient Chris Brown feature), and a lot of dance-pop tracks, including top-five hit "Starships." That last title, a planetarium-sized dance-pop song with an utterly anonymous hook and only vestigial rap, got her in an ugly mess of hip-hop and identity politics last week when New York DJ Peter Rosenberg implied "Starships" wasn't "real hip-hop" but rather music for "chicks"—causing Young Money boss Lil Wayne to pulled his labelmates, including Minaj, out of the festival that Rosenberg's station was hosting. Minaj defended herself in an excruciating, hour-long radio squabble with fellow Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex, and everyone within three Bacon numbers of rap radio weighed in. Nothing—not anyone involved, nor hip-hop or pop—came out looking good, and nothing changed. Minaj's "Beez in the Trap" is still steady at No. 7 on the R&B/hip-hop charts, and judging by her latest slate of singles ("Pound the Alarm" worldwide and for pop radio, "Champion" for urban), her attack-on-all-fronts strategy remains the same.

While this sort of scattershot album-making is unusual for established acts like Minaj or Usher, newer acts or those trying to repackage themselves often try on multiple sounds before settling on one. Newcomers like rapper Azealia Banks are naturally going to vacillate between styles, sometimes to the point of disowning rap entirely; people trying to transition between genres, like Justin Bieber, will release records that sound less like coherent albums than like sonic sampling menus. It's equally common for any album, pop or otherwise, to be a collection of singles rather than a unified whole. And a certain amount of stylistic pastiche is trendy these days, whether it's Grimes drawing inspiration from the contents of a randomly chosen Tumblr feed or Gotye essaying any style he could adapt as a Peter Gabriel song (much, in fact, like Gabriel himself).

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Katherine St. Asaph is a New York-based music critic who has written for the Village Voice, Popdust, the Singles Jukebox and other publications. She can be found at katherinestasaph.tumblr.com.

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