Maybe the first thing you have to know about the newest neo-soul artist that’s been topping the charts is that he isn’t all that new. John Legend, born John Stephens, has been working in R&B since 1998 when he lent his piano talents to the Lauryn Hill single, “Everything is Everything.” Legend filled the next few years of his life with additional appearances as a session musician and stints a songwriter for popular artists such as Alicia Keys and Twista. In his first solo, mainstream album, Get Lifted, Legend emerges as a talented vocalist who’s got all his bases covered. Perhaps an anomaly in popular music, the completed album actually lives up to its characterization and is indeed well-rounded and full of polish. There are no ploys and no gimmicks to make up for hollow rhythms or weak vocals because every song is actually worth listening to.
Most importantly, Legend’s album doesn’t succumb to the “who has the coolest friends” syndrome that most R&B releases have to fall back on. There’s no circus of famous guest spots here. Featured artists only provide additional support and never overshadow Legend himself.
With an influential producer like Kanye West backing him up, Legend would seem to have all the aces in his pocket for a well-padded, commercial release chock full of songs just waiting to be tapped as catchy singles. In reality, Legend’s skill as a musician is strong enough that he doesn’t need the artificially constructed safeguards frequently used to fill in the blanks of R&B albums that are simply lacking.
The much-praised “Ordinary People” is a shining example of Legend’s strong musical foundation. Without excessive vocal adornment or heavy instrumentals, the song features only Legend and his piano. This bare-bones approach, however, only highlights the power of both components and elucidates the elegance in simplicity.
Now don’t get me wrong, Legend is definitely not one to be afraid of dabbling in different genres. Multiple influences resonate throughout the album, all coming from various sources. Among the different songs compiled on Get Lifted are tidbits of Latin, Jazz, R&B, gospel and hiphop.
A unique blend of style is achieved through “Number One,” where Kanye West’s modern-day hiphop lyrics skillfully infiltrate the song’s old school feel. “Number One” possesses a retro mood that results from a combination of Legend’s vocals and a string-heavy musical arrangement. The smooth fusion of seemingly contrasting elements is a frequent occurrence in Get Lifted and Legend doesn’t hesitate in showcasing his mastery of the skill.
Legend’s past experience in mainstream music is also evident in Get Lifted. Thus, the album functions as a testament to Legend’s ability in handling the demands of today’s crowds. The slightly vehement “Used to Love U,” currently being advertised as “the single” probably due to its mainstream appeal, is flavored with expressions like “Maybe I should rob somebody/ So we could live like Whitney and Bobby” that echoes of the name-dropping tendency which so many modern singles tend to overuse. Nevertheless, the ultra-catchy song does have an extremely high can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head factor.
In addition to spanning multiple styles, Get Lifted can be characterized as comprehensive because it encompasses various moods and captures different moments in time. This isn’t a compilation of generic, sappy love ballads or vain declarations of self-congratulations. While “She Don’t Have to Know” chronicles the illicit affair between two people who are both otherwise involved, “It Don’t Have to Change” articulates Legend’s nostalgia about the importance of family.
Strengthened by strong vocals and a timeless quality, Legend’s album exhibits a broad spectrum of musical style, perhaps accountable for the massive approval that it has garnered. Legend breaks with the crowd when he confidently ignores popular trends of supplementing first albums with excess frivolity in terms of complex instrumentals or an entourage of guest stars.
Definitely one of the better releases of 2004, Get Lifted has what it takes to be a necessary staple of neo-soul. Through its release, Legend has successfully established and secured his own position on the map of modern music. With his grasp of different styles and technique, Legend proves he’s here to stay. “This is legendary shit right here,” ad-libs Snoop Dogg on “I Can Change.” Yeah, I’d say that’s about right.
Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Sun Staff Writer