In all likelihood, Usher hit his commercial peak back in 2004, with his Confessions album. Not that that’s anything to be ashamed of—that commercial peak was one reached only by a handful of artists on the history of pop music, as the album spun off four #1 singles (including the era-defining, 14-week chart-topping “Yeah!”) and sold over ten million copies, the last album to date to do so. Since then, sales have steadily declined for Usher, but even with that decline, he’s remained one of the biggest pop stars in the country, scoring two more #1 singles (“Love in This Club” and “OMG”) and staying consistently visible through collaborations with the likes of David Guetta, Pitbull, and (of course) protege Justin Bieber.
While neither of Usher’s last two albums—Raymond vs. Raymond or Here I Stand—were blockbusters the way Confessions was, they were still big releases, selling about 1.3 million a piece and each putting up big first-week numbers. That’s why it’s a little disappointing to see the reports that Looking 4 Myself, Usher’s seventh and latest LP, is being projected to sell just 120-130k in its first week of release. The number is about 200k short of the first week for 2010′s Raymond, 300k short of 2008′s Stand, and nearly a whole million less than what Confessions did in its debut week. Hell, it’s way less than what John Mayer sold of Born and Raised in its first week, and when was the last time you heard “Shadow Days” on the radio?
What really makes this a bummer, though, is that Looking 4 Myself is really, really good. It’s not the kind of “Oh, you guys need a new album now?” phone-in LP like artists of Usher’s stature often release when they reach the artistic middle age that he has (even though in human years, he’s still only 33)—it’s one of the most creative, exciting, and enjoyable albums of his career, and has been getting uniformly positive reviews. You’d expect a mild sales drop off to continue with Usher’s downward trajectory, as well as the continually sagging music industry, but barely cracking six digits? It’s a surprise for sure.
So is it weak single performance to blame, lack of a pop smash like “Yeah!” or “Love in This Club”? Well, maybe to some extent, but Raymond vs. Raymond didn’t really have a crossover hit to promote it either—”OMG” had only just been released by the time the album dropped, and didn’t peak on the charts until months later, while the album’s other lead singles, “Lil Freak” and “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home),” both failed to break the Top 20. Meanwhile, Looking 4 Myself has two Top 20 hits to its name already—the club-burning “Scream” (#13) and the heartbreaking ballad “Climax” (#17), the latter of which has also topped the R&B charts for nine weeks running, the longest of his career. It doesn’t seem like the singles should be to blame.
Maybe the answer is as simple as the name of the guy releasing the month’s other most-anticipated pop album: Justin Bieber. At half Usher’s age, Bieber commands the teen audiences that probably aren’t screeching after Raymond the way they were a decade ago, and maybe the kids just aren’t interested in hearing an hour’s worth of Ush’s sonically adventurous jams of self-exploration these days. Meanwhile, as Zimbio points out, veteran R&B artists aren’t selling all that well lately, with Monica and Mary J. Blige also experiencing underwhelming first-week numbers, and even Beyoncé’s similarly challenging 4 selling a career low for Bey in its first week. We have little doubt that Bieber will far outsell all of them in the upcoming first week of release for Believe—possibly combined, even.
Hopefully, like 4 did for Beyoncé, Looking 4 Myself can mark a career transition for Usher, fully away from the teen heartthrob he used to be into the mature, risk-taking, surprisingly (if a tad bit self-consciously) cool artist he seems to be becoming—a role that, while not likely to ever allow him Confessions numbers again, should at least ensure that he remains a relevant recording artist, and a consistent touring attraction into his late 30s and 40s. Either that, or the album’s title track becomes the biggest hit of the summer, Looking 4 Myself ends up outselling Believe by 300% by year’s end, and Usher reassumes his mantle as the world’s biggest solo male pop start while flipping the bird to all the haters. Both cool with us.