Full disclosure: I’m a John Legend fan. First of all, I admire anyone with the balls to change his name from John Stephens to John Legend. Well done Mr. Legend, well done. Second, Legend’s debut album Get Lifted was an emotionally honest and musically gifted work that not only garnered the smooth singer a Grammy, but more prestigiously, earned Legend regular rotation in my speakers – particularly when I’m entertaining a special lady friend. Before I go any further, I need to ask an essential question. Why John Legend? What is it about Legend that …
DJBooth Album Review
Before I go any further, I need to ask an essential question. Why John Legend? What is it about Legend that lifts him above the huddled masses of ordinary singers? Simply put, he makes you feel good. I don’t mean that in a clichéd, romantic way. No, I’m talking about “sleeping late on Sunday morning” feeling good. “That girl you’ve been asking out for months finally saying yes” feeling good. It’s a more ordinary and more profound feeling, which is fitting because Legend makes extraordinary music for ordinary people. So when I opened Legend’s new album, the surprisingly energetic Evolver, I was ready to judge it by one basic measure. How good did it make me - and the special lady friend - feel?
If Legend’s indeed evolved, it’s because he’s added some more party-ready tracks to his musical arsenal. There’s no better example than Green Light, by far the most club-friendly track of his career. Green Light isn’t actually that groundbreaking for Legend, he uses the same smooth vocals and spare melodies as his ballads, the main difference being the addition of a banging rhythm line and electronically echoing synths. Andre 3000 may describe it best during his insanely dope guest verse, saying of Legend, “Even Stevie Wonder got down sometimes.” It’s Legend on speed (figuratively speaking), and while he’s not likely to make a habit of it, Green Light proves that Legend can jet out of slow motion when necessary. Similarly up-tempo is It’s Over, a bouncing track that adds a funk flavor to form one of the better break-up songs in memory, especially with a punch line heavy verse from Kanye (“News flash shorty it’s over, we like Def Jam and Hova"), who’s apparently so addicted to auto-tune he’s going to have to enter rehab. Ne-Yo doesn’t exactly have anything to fear, but on Evolver, Legend shows he’s got a few radio hit tricks up his sleeve.
Never fear slow jam lovers, Evolver has plenty of Legend’s trademark piano-laced ballads too. He may never so perfectly strike that perfect balance between pain and love again as he did on Ordinary People, but This Time comes close. This Time’s stripped down production lets Legend’s captivating voice carry his tale of regret and second chances to powerful effect. Legend doesn’t engage in vocal gymnastics on This Time, he simply hits his note and holds it, and it’s that simplicity that makes his voice so strong. By contrast If You’re Out There, Legend’s political and social anthem, doesn’t hit nearly as close to the heart. It’s an admirable song in the midst of a crucial election, but in contract to his more personal songs it feels heavy, weighed down by his lofty goals for the song. Personally I’ll take a track like Cross The Line, Legend’s smoothed-out plea to turn a friend to a lover, over If You’re Out There any day, and if that makes me shallow than I’m prepared to be shallow, as long as I can get deep in between the sheets.
Breaking down Evolver into such simple “dance tracks and ballads” categories is ultimately far too simplistic for the far ranging Evolver. Just take No Other Love, an authentically mellow reggae track featuring the always charismatic Estelle, or I Love, You Love, a guitar-tinged track that would be at home in a smoky blues club. Both employ Legend’s trademark style but in new ways that defy easy musical stereotypes. The end result is an album that should win Legend some new fans, while still giving his core fans plenty to love. It’s not an easy feat to pull off, but by subtly evolving instead of pushing to become something he’s not, Legend pulls it off nicely. Listen, Evolver isn’t a classic album, but if you let it, I guarantee it will have you feeling good. I’m talking “waking up next to that girl who finally said yes to a date “ feeling good.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 10/22/08
First DJ Booth Appearance:
"Grammy Family" (2006)
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