To the list of people who've had mind-altering experiences at Coachella, you can add Usher. In April he was a surprise guest at the music festival, and he says his seventh album, Looking 4 Myself, was inspired by the eclectic acts he saw there, including Euro-disco champs Swedish House Mafia (who produced two songs for L4M) and Aussie synth-rockers Empire of the Sun (who guest on the title track). Even Usher's new look off stage the Buddy Holly glasses, the facial scruff suggests that he's warming to indie music. Did he go into Coachella as a Top 40 guy and come out a hipster?
Well, he's not exactly taking a stand against party-rock anthems here. Looking 4 Myself still sounds like the Usher you know; it's just a little more interesting than his usual onslaught of skull-pounding beats and silk-sheets ballads. Cool-kid DJ Diplo (M.I.A., Robyn) produced the electro-glitchy single ''Climax,'' which he's compared, not unfairly, to Radiohead. (Avant-classical composer Nico Muhly also arranged the strings on it.) Amy Winehouse producer Salaam Remi eases into a Motown vibe on ''Sins of My Father,'' and Pharrell Williams brings it back to the '60s with the retro-soul vamp ''Twisted.'' The slower songs drag, and when it comes to romance, Usher's hilariously clueless: He proposes a nice ''gang bang'' for his lady, and offers to ''let me be your body soap'' (um, yuck). But when he reins himself in and lets the producers experiment, he's getting something better than just another loverman hit. He's always been popular, but now he sounds cool. B