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.
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.