Photo by Nabil Elderkin

When Legend Precedes

The legend of much-hyped, Ohio-born, gospel-schooled singer-songwriter John Legend began when he was a teenage prodigy named John Stephens who, through the hookup of a friend, found himself playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s "Everything Is Everything" on her Grammy-winning Miseducation album. Fast-forward through real life, and he’s introduced to hip-hop beast du jour Kanye West just before West’s current rap, pop and R&B reign began. (Legend co-wrote two songs on West’s multiplatinum College Dropout CD.) Their relationship led to the former Mr. Stephens snagging gigs singing with, writing for or doing session work alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Dilated Peoples, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, Eve, Black Eyed Peas, Common and many others. Needless to say, word of mouth on the kid spread exponentially, and a demo he made in hopes of getting a major-label deal (after recording two indie CDs that he sold himself) was a much-sought-after, much-bootlegged item among industry insiders.

As proven by first-week sales of almost 118,000 copies of his major-label debut, Get Lifted (No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart at this writing), the hype seeped from industry heads to the streets to the TRL crowd. But on a 14-track CD, you’re all the way down to track No. 8, the lovely piano ballad "Ordinary People," in which the struggles and fragile rewards of sustaining a romance are delicately spelled out, before the hype feels justified. Certainly that’s the first place where all the elements — vocal performance, production, songwriting and theme — actually jell into a completely satisfying whole, something that you might actually want to revisit down the road. Before that, there are simply brief snatches of what Legend’s capable of doing.

The airily rhyming "Number One" references both the Burt Bacharach–Hal David classic "Don’t Make Me Over" (lyrics) and the Staple Singers’ "Let’s Do It Again" (music) in a clever homage to and pastiche of the past; it braids a bristling, classic pop song that demands unqualified love and acceptance with a sinewy R&B gem that bottles pure lust. The result soars until Kanye’s unnecessary rap cameo grounds it. On the single "Used To Love U," a kiss-off to a materialistic girl, Legend bitingly tosses off the evocative line "Maybe I should rob somebody/so we could live like Whitney and Bobby" — a couplet that wittily suggests a host of problems beyond mere gold digging, and whose suggestions are further (subtextually) teased out by the textured grain of his vocals.

Legend’s greatest asset, maybe even more than his justifiably acclaimed piano playing, is his voice. It’s not a technically astonishing instrument, but it is fluid and hugely expressive. It has a soft-gravel quality, wise and comfortably lived-in, that’s a soulful throwback to a bygone era of black music. (In that regard, he is much like such retro-futuristic peers as Anthony Hamilton and Donnie, both of whom have better songs and more interesting artistic visions.) His voice has a depth of heart that his lyrics seldom deserve and which only rarely even begin to meet halfway. The largely self-penned (or co-written) material seldom challenges him; it dips deep into the dying art of storytelling that most mainstream R&B has abandoned to rap, but it seldom strikes the gold of poetry. And sappy dross like "It Don’t Have To Change," an ode to a heavily romanticized "good old days," which features the Stephens family in a guest appearance, mistakes cloying sentimentality for insight. Undoubtedly, it’ll be the soundtrack to scores of summertime family reunions.

Still, "Ordinary People" and the tracks that follow — "Stay With You," "So High," "Refuge (When It’s Cold Outside)" — make you understand what the buzz was all about in the first place. The rest of the album, which is anchored at midtempo level, sways from hip-hop beats to gospel flourishes to Latin-tinged grooves. It’s made for head nods and bears the unmistakable imprint of Kanye West. But the handful of numbers listed above are sparsely produced (interestingly, they’re tracks where executive producer West didn’t have a hand). Their contemplative lyrics are allowed to breathe, to shed some of the posturing of the other songs and recall the serrated poignancy of Curtis Mayfield.

Re-christened with a moniker that evokes well-seasoned blues men, and blessed with a voice that backs up the evocation, Legend seems to have some idea of what really works for him. If he can find a way to exploit the West connection without having it overwhelm him, he might even have a career that lives up to his name.

JOHN LEGEND | GET LIFTED (Sony Urban Music/Columbia)


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