Kanye West's sideman steps into the spotlight with a surprisingly special debut solo release…
The codes of modern-day R&B will always seem unbreakable to external observers. Take the phrase “get lifted”. Could it be a secular reference to the throes of sexual ecstasy, a religious reference to the Christian Rapture, or indeed, a rap-slang reference to getting shot?
Then again, John Legend is idiosyncratic. The Ohio-born, Philadelphia-based vocalist/pianist will already be familiar to many for his contributions to releases by Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Twista and Kanye West. Yet he doesn’t really do fame-by-association.
What John Legend brings is an organic musicality that other R&B artists have cast aside in favour of electronic photocopies of soul. What might seem conservative to ears de-tuned by hip-hop and rock’n’roll proves instead to be complex and elaborate. There’s a vibe that would recall Smokey Robinson and Teddy Pendergrass were Legend not his own man.
Legend’s sound is related to current R&B in the same way Kanye West is to hip-hop. Kanye does production here that hints at volcanic activity beneath the surface. The seasick horns on ‘Alright’ complement Legend’s drunken-suitor lyrics. When he adopts a full-bodied falsetto for ‘Let’s Get Lifted Again’, you believe he’s going to fly the female ‘object’ of his affections to the moon. And the gospel glissandos and heavenly choirs of ‘I Can Change’ – complete with Snoop Dogg as a repentant pimp – balance the song between seriousness and humour.
R&B does have its conservative side, and Legend plays a regular guy, as opposed to wild freak, on piano-driven ballads such as ‘Ordinary People’. ‘It Don’t Have To Change’ might seem reactionary, yet remains a hymn to lost values in an ever-changing world. All this is confirmed by good-time closer ‘Live It Up’, a throwback to ’70s Philadelphia soul. Legend just knows his stuff.