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 Hills "Everything Is Everything" on her Grammy-winning Miseducation album. Fast-forward through real life, and hes introduced to hip-hop beast du jour Kanye West just before Wests current rap, pop and R&B reign began. (Legend co-wrote two songs on Wests 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 Billboards pop chart at this writing), the hype seeped from industry heads to the streets to the TRL crowd. But on a 14-track CD, youre 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 thats 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 Legends capable of doing.
The airily rhyming "Number One" references both the Burt BacharachHal David classic "Dont Make Me Over" (lyrics) and the Staple Singers "Lets 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 Kanyes 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.
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Legends greatest asset, maybe even more than his justifiably acclaimed piano playing, is his voice. Its not a technically astonishing instrument, but it is fluid and hugely expressive. It has a soft-gravel quality, wise and comfortably lived-in, thats 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 Dont 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, itll be the soundtrack to scores of summertime family reunions.
Still, "Ordinary People" and the tracks that follow "Stay With You," "So High," "Refuge (When Its 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. Its made for head nods and bears the unmistakable imprint of Kanye West. But the handful of numbers listed above are sparsely produced (interestingly, theyre tracks where executive producer West didnt 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)