[3 February 2005]
So let’s just say that in my mind the brotha was suspect. In a world where singular R&B talents like Rahsaan Patterson, Frank McComb and Lewis Taylor languish in obscurity, any body being hyped as “the next great “...(whatever)” was bound to get a rise out of the cynic in me and perhaps there has never been a moment to be more cynical of this thing masquerading as contemporary R&B. And I realize that it isn’t John Legend’s fault, just as it isn’t Ashanti’s or Alicia’s or U(r)sher’s fault. As Imani Perry observes in her brilliant new book Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip-Hop: “Isn’t it to be expected that a national culture that reifies mediocrity, sensation and flashiness over skill and excellence in everything from movies to television to literature and music generally would integrate [forms of black expression] on less-than-ideal terms.” And in such a context it’s not surprising that any cat in R&B bold enough to roll with a piano and competent enough to sing on pitch, was gonna be deemed the as “the next great… (whatever)”—Alicia Keys is instructive here.
So we get the requisite evocations of Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder to describe Legend, suggesting more than anything the lack of immersion in the tradition of black male singers among working critics. The extent that the big three gets summoned in conversations on “the next great…(whatever)” makes it seem as though cats like Joe Simon, Bill Withers, Ronnie Dyson, Bobby Womack, Lattimore, Tyrone Davis, Luther Ingram, Lenny Williams, Jeffery Osborne, Alexander O’Neal, Walter Jackson, and, hell, even Ralph Tresvant never sang a goddamn note. And for the record, I’m hearing Luther Ingram (”(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right”) myself when I hear Legend. What I am also hearing from Legend is a solid debut that is likely to be the best commercially sanctioned R&B recording released this year.
Hype aside, what John Legend has going for him is a vocal earnestness, that is less interested in the riff-heavy, pitch-challenged, spiritually empty histrionics that get passed off as great R&B singing. This is clearly a man who is passionate about his singing and passionate about the craftsmanship (not always one and the same) that comes with the territory of being an accomplished vocal artist. Despite lyrics that border on shallow (how many times can you say that somebody’s love is “blazin’”?) and musical arrangements that can languish (I’m thinking “Ordinary People” specifically), with Get Lifted, Legend has fashioned a rather nuanced and sophisticated debut—a Nora Jones for the R&B faithful.
Of course the majority of the buzz surrounding Legend came courtesy of his apprenticeship with Kanye West. West’s influence on Get Lifted is substantial, as he is behind the boards for several sturdy tracks including the title track, the functional lead-single “Used to Love U” and the nostalgic “Number One”, which incidentally is the only track where we have to deal with Kanye-speak. It’s to the credit of Legend’s musical sensibilities that Kanye largely got out of his way. That the bulk of Kanye’s production appears at the front-end of the disc (save the quirky fun of the Will.i.am produced “She Don’t Have to Know”) means Get Lifted has the feel of a double-disc.
That two-for-one feel pivots on the appearance of Snoop Dogg (of all people) on “I Can Change”, where Snoop trades in his pimp goblet, for a bit of introspection and dare I say some vulnerability, with a gospel chorus in tow. And indeed “I Can Change” becomes the real introduction to John Stephens, the talent pianist and vocalist who bears the name “Legend” for a public desiring to consume just that. While a track like the aforementioned “Ordinary People” is representative of the talent that is being obscured the marketing plan, the countrified soul of “Stay with You”, the dripping wet sweetness of “Live It Up” and the majestic “So High” (despite the “blazin’” chorus) are the songs that will endear connoisseurs of R&B and soul.
One of the great moments on Get Lifted is when Legend humbles himself to the family singers that birthed him. On “It Don’t Have to Change”, Legend passes the mic off to his Uncle Wayne and, his dad Ronald, his brother Vaughn and his cousin Kashaan and listeners get an inkling of the kind of environment where Legend’s talents were honed. Though I can appreciate the dissonance of so much contemporary R&B, vis-à-vis it’s spiritual rejection of some of the defining institutions of 20th century blackness, “It Don’t Have to Change” is a reminder that some of the most powerful musics produced out of that century were nurtured in the black church. The best of Get Lifted is proof that is something that may not change as quickly as we think.