John Legend nestles into nuptial soul without a hitch
As “safe” as he seems, John Legend has always had a careless streak. Musically, he’s been the type of boyfriend prone to adulterous slip-ups, yet able to suavely explain (and thus successfully void) his negligence. (He once pitched dancing as a solution to a spat as if it were a thesis: “We can argue and fuss all night/But I propose that we go to the flo’ and just slow dance.”) Even in its mushy moments, his first two albums, Get Lifted (2004) and Once Again (2006), revelled in a sense of blind navigation. The cocky, considerate man occasionally marred by machismo made trifling love sound sexy. When he vowed to repent, it was usually behind a smirk.
This month (September), the 34-year-old singer/songwriter/pianist becomes a married man in real life (to his witty model fiancée Chrissy Teigen), and his fourth solo album, Love In The Future, parallels reality. “The title kind of embraces where I’m heading in life,” he’s said. “It’s the beginning of something new.” It’s also the end.
For R&B artists, the path from reckless singledom to stability is all but pre-paved, a fitting evolution that some (Justin Timberlake) nestle into better than others (Usher). Legend is easily an adult-contemporary standout. But the slightly dickish old-soul apologist has grown into a tamed humanitarian whose albums were becoming progressively less adventurous—the Alicia Keys career track. Though experimental, Evolver (2008) felt forced. Love In The Future eases up on the weak global pop & B and re-ups on soul. It all sounds “good for you,” like an ad for true love. Not always exciting; dull even, from the outside, but more beautiful up close.
Get Lifted, sophisticated as it was, spoke to twenty-somethings under construction. Future’s demo is much smarter. Instead of being aroused by danger and uncertainty, Legend leaps into domestic living. He sells odes and peddles wedding songs, including the vocally piercing “All Of Me” and lead single “Made to Love,” a spacy track about destined relationships on which Legend could pass for Cee Lo. He positions himself as Mr. Imperfect, cautioning against silly expectations on the gorgeously spare “Open Your Eyes,” a cover of Bobby Caldwell's hit of the same name (also used as a sample in Common’s “The Light”): “Are you expecting to find a love, love that’s right?/Darling, open your eyes/Let me show you the light/’Cause you’ll never find a love that’s right… Girl, you think you’re so wise.” He acknowledges his old self—“The Beginning” is an unofficial sequel to “Again” and “Another Again”—but this time “doing it again” means gladly boning the same woman, not falling into a cycle of cheating.
There’s minimal risk here. Much of Future glosses over the fun of being a fool because there’s a point when mischief just seems juvenile (your 20s are for making mistakes and all that). It gets a little alright-already. Legend’s “hey there” morning voice can only do so much with the album’s most mechanical lines (“Love is an ocean,” etc.). Still, he’s love’s ultimate salesman and you’re compelled to do as he sings now, not as he did.
When he does express confusion, it’s about the uneasiness of finding the one. For him, the crazy-in-love feeling is comforting. Built around warm soul echoes (Kanye West splits executive production with Legend and Dave Tozer), “Who Do We Think We Are” finds him willingly drowning in commitment while Rick Ross (always a strangely perfect complement) raps about jewels dripping on his Timberlands.
Legend still pushes sexy R&B, but this is date-night music, not Robin Thicke debauchery. What’s adventure? Playing hooky from church to make love in the living room. The rash and damaged women of his youth are replaced with a one and only whose biggest flaw is nitpicking her own. His foreplay is telling her to pick out baby names (“boy or girl?”). And babies are “love tax write-offs.”
While spiraling into a John Legend binge listening writing this, it was easy to get lost in frivolous songs like "Alright" and “I Can Change,” where the playboy only half-pledged commitment, something Love In The Future gleefully champions. As younger artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel stumble and leg-drop through love on record, John Legend 4.0 is the wise Real Time with Bill Maher talking head, chuckling from the sidelines. He knows the future isn’t as exciting, but it’s definitely more stable. —Clover Hope (@clovito)