In the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan noted an era when people desired "beautiful voices over very melodic songs." He referred to the early 1960s and pop balladeers such as Doris Day and Johnny Mathis. But the description fits the current soul scene, too, and its celebration of black and, increasingly, white artists with wondrously perfect voices and virtuous, albeit sexually complicated lives. A friend of mine used to call it "church."
If the soul scene resembles a megachurch, then John "Legend" Stephens is its deacon. His rise in the music industry from backup vocalist on Jay-Z’s "Encore" to flagship artist on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint was balanced with a years-long stint as music director at Philadelphia’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. In photos accompanying his 2004 debut Get Lifted (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), Legend stood in the aisle of a nondescript church, bathed in sunlight, his hands resting on two adjacent pews. Thematically the album followed Legend’s transformation from hip-hop kid with a roving eye ("She Don’t Have to Know," "Used to Love U," which pays homage to Common’s "I Used to Love H.E.R.") to chastened man trying to save his relationship ("I Can Change," "Ordinary People") and, finally, spiritually and physically devoted lover ("Stay With You," "So High"). He performed these songs with a studious air. His voice alternately massaged and swayed, like an altar boy brushing the dirt off his shoes as he enters.
Legend has moved on to other themes of love and devotion, but the Christian aspects of his music remain. The "church" probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The modern R&B industry resembles the old-school pop industry before it lapsed into the Madonna/whore syndrome personified by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus in its celebration of carefully manicured personalities with stylish (but not too avant-garde) fashion sensibilities and gossipy (but not too slutty) love lives. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going to church. Still, whether used as a metaphor or visited as a place of worship, a church and its congregation idealize the world around it.
As a result, most soul vocalists sing about love and sex, reducing the vagaries of life to intimate relationships. A few, particularly the great Anthony Hamilton and Raheem DeVaughn, address the black community, the effects of violent crime and rampant poverty, and the idea of working hard for a paycheck and dreaming of better days. But that’s not really Legend’s thing. He imagines as a songwriter and composer in the vein of Quincy Jones and Billy Joel. He cuts a dashing figure on the cover of his 2004 album Once Again (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), tinkling a grand piano in the middle of busy New York City streets and spinning light, romantic numbers such as "P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)." "Let’s go to the park, I wanna kiss you underneath the stars," he sings in a breezily sultry voice. "Let’s make love."
Much like Burt Bacharach, the old-school mandarin of fluffy Brill Building pop, Legend is an ace craftsman of modern standards. His best songs mix concise and thoughtful lyrics with subtle melodies, expert musicianship, and standout choruses. For his new full-length, Evolver (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), he adds "Green Light," a seductive come on buffeted by drum and keyboard programming. "Give me the green light, give me just one night," croons Legend as stray synth melodies pop and sparkle around him. Andre 3000 from OutKast shows up after the second hook, promising to have "you giggling like a piglet / Oh, that’s the ticket / I hope you’re more Anita Baker than Robin Givens."
The cover of Evolver, where Legend poses mysteriously in a Members Only jacket, plays on "Green Light"’s promise that the traditionalist is playing a new game. But, of course, it’s the same tricks. Get Lifted successfully mixed A-list rappers with familiar neo-soul grooves: baby-making music with a contemporary edge. Despite the subtle nods to ’80s babies nostalgia, Legend doesn’t wander too far from that winning formula. Instead, he offers creamy ballads such as "Cross the Line," where he admits, "I don’t want to risk losing everything."
For all the loveliness of Legend’s voice, it would be nice to hear him write more challenging material. Get Lifted drew unpredictable, exciting tension from his classical tendencies and hip-hop’s swagger, but with Evolver he veers dangerously close to blandness. Of course, his "church" probably wouldn’t want it any other way.
Back in 2006, I saw Los Angeles singer-songwriter Esthero open for Legend. Walking on stage barefoot and in loose-fitting clothes, Esthero’s funk jams and earthy Bjork-like trip-pop drew snickers from the audience. She was almost booed off the stage. It took Legend to pacify the old ladies and married couples.
"Hey, do you remember this one?" he teased them, playing a few notes from Jay-Z’s "Encore" and Slum Village’s "Selfish." He sang in fine form that night, and the church was pleased.
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