"On this album, different things inspired me," says Usher. "Normally, I'm pulling from personal relationships and from older musical styles, but the things that motivated me this time were sounds and music that were very new and indie, like going to the Coachella festival or to Ibiza. I’ve traveled the world, toured nearly every continent—this phase of my life and my career is very open to exploring."
On his seventh studio album, LOOKING 4 MYSELF, seven-time Grammy winner Usher Raymond takes some bold steps into unexpected musical territory. Assuming the most active role of his career as a songwriter, and working with a wide range of producers and collaborators—including Diplo, Swedish House Mafia, Max Martin, Will I. Am, and Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun—one of the best-selling musical artists in history has blended electro dance beats with his signature, era-defining R&B, pop, and hip-hop sounds to create a style that goes beyond category.
"I felt the creative freedom to be daring," he says. "There's a moment where you question, is this something that my audience is ready to accept? But I listened to artists like the Beatles and Prince and Marvin Gaye at pivotal moments, where they really spoke how they felt, and I took that liberty to be as creative as possible."
Judging from the reaction to the first single, the simmering, atmospheric "Climax," Usher need not have worried. The song's video was viewed more than eight million times in less than a month, earning rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and USA Today. In addition, LOOKING 4 MYSELF is being released on the heels of two wildly diverse, multi-platinum chart-topping collaborations featuring Usher: “Without You” by David Guetta, which held the Number One spot on the Pop charts, and “Promise” with Romeo Santos, which reached Number One on the Latin charts.
Challenging himself creatively and testing musical boundaries are characteristics that have defined Usher's career since he was first discovered an unbelievable twenty years ago on Star Search. Since then, he has sold over 43 million albums worldwide. Billboard named him the second most successful artist of the 2000s decade, with his ten-million-selling 2004 album Confessions ranked as the top solo album of the decade. Usher has attained nine Hot 100 Number One hits and seventeen Hot 100 Top Ten singles.
Along the way, Usher has recorded with everyone from Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, and Shakira to Jay-Z, T.I. even Enrique Iglesias. He has appeared everywhere from Broadway to the Super Bowl. He is part owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, has a best-selling line of fragrances, and a business venture with RBMG (Raymond Braun Media Group), home to superstar Justin Bieber.
"I've never been one to repeat myself, but I do want people to get the essence of the Usher they like," he says. "I think people understand that I’m well-traveled and that I've continued to develop—but also, that I haven't lost myself, but expanded myself, and I keep that heart and soul in everything I’m singing."
Realizing that with success comes responsibility. Usher has also proven to be a major philanthropic force. Founded in 1999, his New Look Foundation empowers youth from impoverished communities to become leaders. In recognition of his accomplishments, Usher has been honored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Trumpet Foundation, Do Something, the NAACP, and as the 2010 Ford Freedom Award Scholar.
All of this experience, vision, and ambition come through on LOOKING 4 MYSELF, beginning with the title song (a collaboration with Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun), which Usher says was directly inspired by his visit to the indie/dance mecca of Coachella. Over a breezy, percolating track, he muses on the search for fulfillment. "You’re in pursuit of this goal, searching for perfection, but you're never going to reach it," he explains. "It feels like a bearing of the soul, but it's about shedding a skin you no longer need—you cannot go forward if you continue looking back."
Perhaps even more striking is the propulsive, ominous "Sins of My Father," produced by Salaam Remi. "When you hear that title, you think about the Old Testament, or maybe even politics," says Usher. "How as a society, we reap the repercussions of liberties taken, like you're serving a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.
"Also, that's a chapter I never spoke about, how my dad was not in my life as a child, and now, when I'm dealing with my children and relationships, that can lead to karma and consequences. I thought these were all things that would be intriguing to talk about."
Other songs reveal different moods; "It's cool to be serious, but without fun, you ain’t living," says Usher. "Scream" (produced by Max Martin), the follow up single to “Climax,” and "Can't Stop Won’t Stop" with Will I. Am, are arm-waving, club-banging rave-ups. "Those are just ultimate party records," he says, "bridging the gap from urban to world audience—no color, no genre." On "Lemme See," Usher rewinds things a bit. "Having Rick Ross on this one is that little touch that tips it over the edge," he says. "Everybody loves it in the hood, but it ends up worldwide. And I'm kinda going back to my childhood in that one, taking my shirt off!"
The inspiration for the easy-rocking "Show Me" came from an unexpected place. "I was reading 'Going on a Bear Hunt' to my boys, and there's a line 'You can’t go over it, you can’t go around it, you gotta go through it,'" Usher recalls. "That made me think about life and its obstacles. I had just performed 'Stand By Me' on the Grammy Nominations television special, and it made me want to do something uplifting like that."
Yet another direction emerged on "Euphoria," produced by Swedish House Mafia. "I kind of looked at that song like 'Thriller,'" says Usher. "A record that really gives people an experience, where your bedroom starts transforming into a whole new place, and it feels like there are lights and people coming out of everywhere."
Even with all of these new creative partners and experimental approaches, Usher maintains that no one pushed him harder than himself. "I really did exceed my own expectations," he says. "Not only did I get the records I wanted, but I got hits, records that will really affect people. I proved that I can get with Diplo or Swedish House Mafia and be able to make that connection, make something people would respond to."
To Usher Raymond, LOOKING 4 MYSELF represents the next stage in his own coming of age; it's a project he could not have undertaken until this phase in his life. "As a young artist, you live vicariously through others until you have your own experiences," he says. "Younger artists might have to go through just doing one thing, like how Picasso had his blue period. But as you grow older, you become able to articulate yourself better and know what works for you.
"So this album is not a monochromatic thing—certain songs were specifically intended to get certain things out, different tones and emotions. And as an artist, that brought out the best in me."