ome on and go with me / There’s something new for you to see.”
As John Legend begins his album with this preface, it begs the question: “What is it that’s new about him?” The Stevie Wonder crooning he uses to give this message certainly isn’t. One needs only to change the channel to American Idol or rewind to the Neo-Soul explosion of past years to dispel that idea. Perhaps he means using Kanye West as the producer on many of the tracks to create an exciting new hybrid of hip-hop and R&B.; Alas, Ron G first started blending R&B; a capellas over hard hip-hop beats on his mixtapes in the early 90’s. Or maybe it’s the subject matter he covers in his songs. Certainly no one has ever sung about love, break-ups, or infidelity before. No, there doesn’t seem to be anything very new about John Legend. And, in spite of this, he has made one of the most interesting R&B; records in recent memory.
Much of the credit for the success of this album should be attributed to Kanye West. He is one of the few hip-hop producers in the game who can make beats for singers without sounding like a mash-up right out the gate. On “Let’s Get Lifted” the guitar and drums punctuate and glide beneath Legend’s honest tenor. “Used To Love U” seems like an R&B; rehash of Kweli’s “Get By” but, as is often the way with great producers (Timbaland and the Neptune), the rehash is often much better than the original. Gathering confidence from the music, John Legend assumes an R. Kelly swagger on “Alright,” talking tough over bowed bass.
It’s a testament to Kanye’s gifts that he is repeatedly able to plunder obvious sample sources without distracting the listener. Few producers would have the nerve to touch the classics that Kanye has sampled in the past, but the end result always seems to take on a distinctly different life than its previous incarnation. Legend is also up to the task by crafting melodies that further distinguish the song as a completely new composition. Together they create an EP of up-tempo, yet soulful songs (a bit of an anomaly in an R&B; climate where there’s barely a middle ground between ballads and club hits).
“Ordinary People,” the first of the piano and voice ballads, is a bit more derivative than the earlier tracks but expertly performed. Legend’s voice has a naked quality to it, warm and full without any of the drawbacks of virtuosity. He even manages to pull off a non-cringe-inducing falsetto on the psychedelic soul number, “Let’s Get Lifted Again,” sounding like a hidden track from The Love Below. A former choir director, Legend knows how to use his voice to the best of his abilities and the album greatly benefits.
While John Legend doesn’t quite live up to the hype of being the next D’Angelo (oh, the needle and the damage done), he has crafted a solid debut. Kanye West has a way of bringing out the best in people and it’s certainly true here. He’s not doing anything all that different from everyone else, he’s just doing it better.
Reviewed by: Jonathan Forgang
Reviewed on: 2005-02-11