Release Date: Sep 3, 2013
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Pop, R&B, Soul, Urban, Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Neo-Soul, Adult Contemporary R&B, Contemporary R&B
There are few names bigger than John Legend when it comes to R&B. Whether it be a panty-wetting paean of his own or an appearance to provide a soulful hook to a Kanye song, John Legend is going to grab your attention. So how is it that there has been such little buzz in the five years it’s been since his last solo album? Legend may have a better handle on staying out of the news than most of his peers.
This is John Legend's first solo studio album since 2008's Evolver. Between the two releases, he recorded the Grammy-winning Wake Up! with the Roots, scored a gold single with "Tonight (Best You Ever Had)" (from the Think Like a Man soundtrack), was featured on a couple albums' worth of songs by other artists, and somehow managed to be deeply involved in philanthropy. He also got engaged.
John Legend's fiancee, model Chrissy Teigen, recently said she never wears underwear. And who can blame her: Undies fly away like silken doves when the reigning king of hip-hop soul is in the general vicinity. On Legend's fourth LP, executive producer Kanye West helps give him a plush, nuanced palette to match his signature emotional generosity and strong sensuality – from mountainous piano crushers like "All of Me" to "The Beginning," which flips a freaking Sara Bareilles sample into a promise of endless babymaking rapture.
The Beginning, the first song on John Legend's fourth album, is about hopeful clean-slate love, yet the track is sonically mournful. It's a change from his previous releases - they started with toe-tappers - but it's remarkably affecting, reminiscent of his defining song, Ordinary People. The disc feels on the long side - he could lose the schmaltzy, dragging You & I (Nobody In The World) completely - and is not in the same league as his magnificent 2004 debut, Get Lifted.
John Legend is the rare artist who admits to listening to his critics, so while I don't think constructive criticism is any more a necessity for a successful review than explicitly telling readers whether or not an album is worth their hard-earned 10 bucks, I occasionally find myself doing just that when I genuinely like an artist. Legend suffers from a similar condition as the comparable Alicia Keys: When he isn't singing like he's simultaneously sucking on a throat lozenge, as he does on the opening track of his new album, Love in the Future, Legend's voice is supple and enveloping, but in the absence of exceptionally strong songwriting (his debut single, “Ordinary People,” being one example), he requires exceptionally strong production to keep and hold your attention. Like his previous efforts, Love in the Future, his first solo album in five years, is uneven in that regard.
John Legend's fifth studio album is a far cry from his last, 2010's consciousness-raising, full-tilt collaboration with the Roots, Wake Up! The sound is positively pared in comparison, produced and programmed by the likes of Kanye West and Dave Tozer. Legend's voice is excellent throughout and comes to the fore on ballads such as All of Me. If ever the record's appeal wanes due to the generic feel of the backings and melodies, it is given a lift by Legend's fine piano playing or little production tweaks – the lo-fi crunch of the backing on The Beginning; the short trumpet solo on You and I; the moment at the close of Dreams where the vocal turns into a vocoder line and you wonder who let Daft Punk into the control room.
Love in the Future? Speaking of which, any forthcoming John Legend documentary should be titled The Curious Case of John Stephens. For a musical prodigy that first burst out of the gate with a lively debut album (2004's Get Lifted), Legend has settled into a languid musical stride, one akin to a Las Vegas lounge singer. As one of the initial members of Kanye West's G.O.O.D.
Don’t be fooled by the title of John Legend’s fourth solo record, as the music actually looks backward to sweeping romanticism and pop formalism. All of Legend’s strengths are present: keen melodies, smooth vocal understatement, and artful arrangements. Essentially, the disc plays like a love letter to his fiancee, supermodel Chrissy Teigen, yet it resonates.