Music

John Legend: Evolver

Evolver is one of the better R&B albums of 2008, and Legend goes a long way towards proving himself as a jack of all trades.


John Legend

Evolver

Contributors: Kanye West,will.i.am, Estelle, Brandy, Ne-Yo
Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2008-10-28
UK Release Date: 2008-10-20
Amazon
iTunes

Anthony Hamilton may have the better voice. Ne-Yo might write better songs. However, when it comes to smooth, mature R&B, John Legend is the man to beat. The protégé of Kanye West, Legend has amassed strong sales and critical kudos for his first couple of albums, Get Lifted and Once Again. He’s become known as the R&B singer you can take home to mom, a piano man in the mold of Lionel Richie and Brian McKnight. However, he’s got a more pronounced hip-hop vibe and a wink-nudge, sly sexuality that‘s a refreshing change from the crass sexuality found in most R&B and hip-hop lyrics these days.

This summer, as the release of Legend’s third album, Evolver, approached, the singer talked it up as a bit of a departure from the classy ballads he was known for. First single "Green Light" suggested a departure indeed. Spacey '80s synths and a rap from the irrepressible Andre 3000 contributed to make this bouncy, danceable jam a hit. With Evolver finally in stores and online, two questions need to be asked. 1) Is the entire album a departure for John Legend, and 2) Can he make it work?

The answer to the first question? Well, yes-the album is a departure if you compare it to the lounge-y Once Again. However, there was a strong hip-hop influence on Get Lifted, and Evolver is basically a better-produced, more eclectic version of his debut. It has a danceable, midtempo vibe that will appeal to the exact same people who already buy his music. So it’s not a departure in the sense of “John Legend Goes Gangsta”, but if all you know of Legend is his hit single "Ordinary People", then you’ll be in for a bit of a start.

Any great artist knows that in order to not shock their fans too much, they have to temper any “experimentation” with a little bit of what they do best and Evolver’s best songs are, you guessed it, the ballads. Two stick out immediately. "This Time" has to be one of the best songs Legend’s ever written and performed, with a majestic, cinematic quality. No doubt that’s due to the usage of former Yes-man Trevor Horn as a co-producer. I would be quite intrigued to see what Horn could do with Legend over the course of a full album. The other spectacular ballad is "If You’re Out There", a political-tinged “up with people”-type song that Legend performed for Barack Obama at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

The remainder of Evolver manages to successfully incorporate a few different styles while staying true to John Legend’s sound. It’s contemporary without sounding desperate. Highlights include the dramatic Brandy duet "Quickly", where the former teen diva and the piano man improbably match up quite well. There’s also a couple of reggae-flavored tunes that suggest Legend has gotten the island fever. "No Other Love" is a grooving, melodic jam with a quick cameo by Legend discovery Estelle (of American Boy fame), while "Take Me Away", a song that conjures up thoughts of white sand and clear blue water, finds Legend handing his pen over to another songwriter for the only time on Evolver. No surprise that the songwriter is current “it” man Ne-Yo. However, the song’s feel is decidedly unlike most of Ne-Yo’s other material, and as much as I like the music of both men, I don’t think John Legend would sound very good singing a stereotypical Ne-Yo song.

The great thing about John Legend is that he brings out the best in collaborators who are talented but don’t always put out satisfying work. Black Eyed Pea will.I.am has turned out to be a great songwriting partner, and the three songs he’s written here are strong enough to forgive "My Humps" (but not "Fergalicious"). The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, who has been on autopilot for at least half a decade, delivers a winner with "It’s Over", which manages to be hooky without being juvenile as so many Neptunes productions are. The signature horns from Grandmaster Flash’s Freedom are tastefully woven into this midtempo banger, and it’s enough to excuse the album’s low point-a half-assed rap cameo from Kanye West, who really, really needs to put the Auto-Tune machine away.

"Evolver" is certainly one of the better R&B albums of 2008, and Legend goes a long way towards proving himself as a jack of all trades. This more electronic, less organic version of John Legend is more or less as enjoyable as the balladeer stuck behind the piano. So I guess that answers question #2, doesn’t it?

7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image