Usher doesn’t want you to just listen to his seventh album, Looking for Myself – he’d rather you feel it. To debut his Euro-splashed LP, coming out June 12th, the R&B sexophile integrated himself into two performances of Off-Broadway’s “Fuerza Bruta,” a senses-stimulating live experience combining vigorous slam dancing, surgical lighting cues and participation from a clumped standing-only audience.
A foggy haze permeated the cavernous performance space at New York City’s Daryl Roth Theater, where the 33-year-old theatrically sequenced the entirety of the project to strobing lights and choreographed moves. A booming voice introduced the night as “a journey for each of the senses,” and warned the audience, “what happens stays here. Consider yourself lucky.” Those in attendance for the first of two pre-public performances took note, heeding commands to crouch low to the ground and pump fists in the air.
Emerging from the dark, a fauxhawk-coiffed Ursh, clad in a snow-white suit accented by a black tie, trotted across a conveyor belt in beat to the Diplo-produced “Climax.” As the tempo galloped and his pace quickened, he clutched his stomach as a gunshot fired and blood spread across his torso, leaving the evening’s protagonist injured but able to mingle with fellow players as the crunchy title track, produced by Empire of the Sun, boomed through the system.
That sense of wounded ache counteracted his desire to command the crowd, a balance struck tightly on Looking for Myself. The LP piggybacks on the ephemeral club appeal of his recent hits, including “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” featuring Pitbull and David Guetta’s “Without You,” and weighs it against vulnerable demi-ballads à la “Papers,” pointing the pen inward while reflecting on the concept of fidelity.
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At his most frivolous, Usher dominated the room. As the audience shuffled to accommodate the constantly shifting set pieces, he orchestrated flash dance parties, bringing attendees onto a pint-sized stage to boogie to the sounds of the album’s second single “Scream,” produced by Max Martin and Shellback. Even when he splayed across a makeshift couch during the Jim Jonsin-helmed “Let Me See” featuring Rick Ross, patrons bounced to the PG-13 lyrics (“She said she want to take her shirt off, be my guest,” he sings) while lights flashed and acrobats raced along a silver curtain 30 feet above the ground.
But it was when the pace slowed that Usher’s trademark sensitivity shined. The album reached emotional fever pitch during a Rico Love-penned “Dive,” where actors slid across a taut see-through tarp covered in pools of water, sustained above the audience’s head. “I don’t mind playing in the rain,” Usher naughtily coos over an unresolving melody. Later, against a cloudy and mechanical beat on an unnamed track, he sings a different tune: “I admit that I’ve been careless,” he confesses.
It’s those pocket moments of introspection that humanize the robotics of Looking for Myself. With two public performances at “Fuerza Bruta,” both taking place tonight (April 28), the veteran entertainer reasserts himself as a master of rapturous dance fodder, capable of turning a room into a thumping rave with ease. But the conflicted odes of self-reflection show the hero isn’t as valiant as the beat would have you believe – an uncertainty that keeps him grounded, even when the volume is cranked up high.