John Legend burst upon the scene in 2004 with the acclaimed 'Get Lifted' and gave R&B/soul a much badly needed fresh shot in its arm after being populated by numerous prefab acts. His take on 60s and 70s soul gave R&B a much needed lifeline and it carried on in grand fashion on his 2006 sophomore effort, 'Once Again', which further established him as one of music's young bright stars. So what would the Ohio native do for this third effort?
It is quite fitting that his third album would be called 'Evolver' because Legend has indeed evolved his classic come hither but yet classy old school soul with more modern R&B tones, meaning that the listener will be exposed to more bass-rich undertones and electronic sounds. Depending on the listener, that could either be a good or bad thing and in the interests of being objective, you can decide if fusing the tones of hitmakers like Usher, Ne-Yo, and Chris Brown is good or bad for the man who put classic soul back into modern soul music.
The album begins with the first hit single off the album, 'Green Light' featuring Andre 3000 from OutKast. The hit song is ladled with a bass heavy syncopated rhythm, an immediate stark departure from the comparatively simple sounds from 'Get Lifted' and 'Once Again'. But the song suffers from novelty syndrome as each successive play of the song reveals how much Legend gets upstaged by Andre's typical offbeat rapping and lyrical style. The first time you hear the song, you don't get that impression but the more you play 'Green Light,' the more likely you will feel Legend shortchanged himself in the writing of the song (at least his portion of the lyrics) and allowed himself to be upstaged by Andre. But it's done relatively well on the singles charts and on radio. The song is almost un-Legend like...overly catchy.
'Everybody Knows' is the classic fusion song, fusing in the sounds that put Legend on the map with a touch of the modern R&B tones Legend has added to his repetoire in the past two years. It also contains a little touch of a song from 'Once Again', 'Stereo'. The next single, 'Quickly' goes into Kanye West social commentary territory minus the hip-hop beats by delving into a subtle but profound message: You said that the sky is fallin’, the globe is warmin’, my country’s warrin’, leaders are lyin’, time is runnin’, lord knows baby, there’s nowhere to go… I know we just met but baby can you love me quickly.” The quietly powerful song is accentuated with the addition of R&B star Brandy.
"No Other Love" is probably the other song outside of 'Green Light' that will elicit eyebrows as 'No Other' sports an obvious reggae beat that seems way out of place in comparison to the rest of the tracks on the album and the need to shove Estelle on the song borders on the obvious need to showcase the rising R&B singer in as many other albums besides her own till someone asks her label to stop it. Besides, her attempt to do a little reggae singing is an exercise in utter failure. The song is a valiant attempt to get Legend out of his zone and unlike when O.A.R. went into a little reggae on their last album, Legend's attempt to introduce a little reggae was unnecessary at best and to steal a line from Simon Cowell...a little bit self-indulgent at worst.
"This Time" invokes the theme and setup Legend put forth on the last track of 'Once Again', 'Home'. The song begins with a topical but preachy theme, easily used for songs made for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn't though soar as high as 'Home' but the message conveyed remains the same. 'Satisfaction' and 'I Love, You Love' are better executed experimental songs than 'No Other Love'. The former sports Prince-like electronic beats and rhythms while the latter features Legend in a near falsetto set in front of a bass beat and staggered guitar riff that is sprinkled in throughout the song.
The final song (if you did not purchse it on iTunes), 'If You're Out There' is an official campaign rally song for the presidential campaign of (at the writing date) now president-elect Barack Obama.
Overall, the album probably will be one of the more weaker albums Legend has put forth, especially when compared to the compact and organized nature of his previous two albums. There is a small sense of disorganization and meandering throughout as Legend almost seems to struggle to stick in one spot without wildly jumping into other spots, which is what put him on the map in the first place...his ability to stick in one region without deviating too terribly from it. Legend has always been at his best when he has a sense of focus and direction and for the most part it just wasn't there save for 2 or 3 tracks. But, one can say the lack of focus might keep John Legend fresh as in this particular genre, playing it safe all the time can turn your audience away and it seems that it was something Legend felt he could not afford to do and by also admitting that he had no particular rhyme or reason for this album, this is definitely not an exercise in playing it safe.
So in the end, for all the missteps in the album, I will have to give Legend credit for taking a huge risk for going off the beaten path he created himself. I cannot honestly say its a good or bad risk to take. Only his next effort will tell whether or not 'Evolver' will truly help John Legend in his quest to evolve his music like any great musician will do.
Alan Ho is the chief head of Musiqtone.com. You can contact her at email@example.com or fill out this feedback form below.