By Sabrina Ford
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Almost 20 years have passed since R&B fans first took notice of Usher Raymond on 1994's debut album "Usher." At that time, he was just a baby-faced teenager singing about things he hadn't yet experienced.
Over the years, fans have watched Usher grow into a man and become one of the top-selling pop stars of the last two decades, documenting his personal highs and lows through his music.
But ask Usher, and he says his evolution has just begun.
Now a seasoned performer and 33-year-old father of two young boys, Usher takes himself to new places musically with his seventh studio album, "Looking 4 Myself," out June 12. The lead single "Climax," marries R&B and electronic music, and sets the tone for 14 tracks of electronic, soul and hip-hop sounds.
Usher gets personal on "Sins of My Father," a song about the consequences of growing up without his dad. The album's thumping second single, "Scream," and the will.i.am and Keith Harris production, "Can't Stop Won't Stop," are party anthems in the vein of "OMG," his hit single from 2010's "Raymond v. Raymond."
On June 11, Usher introduces his album with a performance, directed by filmmaker Hamish Hamilton, at London's HMV Forum for the "American Express Unstaged" live stream music series.
Reuters spoke with Usher about "Looking 4 Myself," his upcoming show and the new direction he's taking musically.
Q: You said this is your most artistic album to date. How was working on this project different?
A: "It was damn near a rebirth. I felt open and creative because I didn't have anything in my mind. At some point, after making music for a long time, you have to find very new creative and innovative ways to do what you love.
"I've felt restricted in a lot over the last several years and maybe it's because I was holding myself back. Maybe I felt like I needed to conform to some specific standard. I got to the point where I said, 'I gotta go with what I feel and hopefully people will follow me.'
Q: Will your old fans get it?
A: "I always try to find a way for everybody to feel like they got something. On this album, dance or electronic music is not just your typical electronic experience - it's been Usherized. I put it all in there - soul, R&B, hip-hop, electronic and I make it work, because I believe it."
Q: What's the overall vibe of the album?
A: "I was a little held up in my emotions, and I used my music as a diary to log some of what I was dealing with. And then there are songs that are made to have fun. They're not deep."
Q: Michael Jackson is one of your more obvious influences. Who are some artists you've been influenced by that may surprise people?
A: "Picasso. I find inspiration in the fact that he found different ways to articulate himself. His artistic vision adjusted and he allowed himself to be in the moment and to be a part of what was going on around him in the art world.
Q: Tell us some of your favorites from the album?
A: "Songs like 'Euphoria' I feel really push the envelope. (Producers) Swedish House Mafia hadn't really done a lot of songs with vocal artists. I felt privileged to be able to work with them. I think a lot of people will relate to 'Looking for Myself.' People question, 'Would I be better if I found someone to relate to, or do I just need to get to know myself better?
"'I Care for You' - that song is my heart. Saying 'I care for you' is like saying 'I love you' without saying those words. I think those can be dangerous words so I had to find a creative way to say it without saying it. 'I love you' can be scary, it can be dangerous."
Q: What can fans expect from your June 11 show?
A: "Performing over the last few years, I notice that people almost don't even watch the show anymore. They're on their phones - texting, tweeting or recording.
"We wanted to make this interactive for the fans so, they'll be able to create their own avatar and have it dance on screen with me. It's something that Hamish (Hamilton), and my entire team felt would be very unique. Fans can tweet while I'm on stage. I'll be able to interact with them - I may comment on tweets that come through."
Usher's "American Express Unstaged" concert will stream live on Monday June 11 at 4:00 p.m. EDT at www.youtube.com/UsherVEVO.
(Reporting by Sabrina Ford; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)