January 18, 2005

Shortcut - John Legend's Get Lifted

While in the past it would have been easy not to recognize Kanye West as the producer of a noteworthy album, that isn't the case anymore. Now West is more established, and probably a more skillful producer than he is a rapper, so his name draws instant recognition for any album he touches. West's rap pedigree would at first seem out of place when associated with John Legend's emotional, soulful debut album Get Lifted. Yet the further you get into the album, the more you learn that it is a surprisingly good match.

Legend may not have the voice of contemporaries such as D'Angelo or KC & Jojo, but his mixing of styles such as R&B, soul, hip-hop, folk, and even world is startlingly effective, especially when based on such a doo-wop overtone. Furthermore, his lyrics, all dealing with the nature of a relationship—in all its awkwardness, turmoil, and joy—are fresh and soothing. It's this mixing of styles, clever lyrics, and amiable nature that makes Legend to R&B what Kanye West is to hip-hop.

Granted, not all Legend's experimentations are successful. He diverts from his neo-Motown feel to a Dylan-esque commitment number in "Stay With You," which is unfortunately stale and ineffective. Furthermore, while "Number One," Legend's collaboration with Kanye West, is interesting in its blurring of the line between Legend's and West's styles, it misses a great opportunity. The song has the worst lyrics of the album, and West uses a more traditional rap style than the one with which he is most comfortable. Much more fascinating is the gospel-tinged "I Can Change," Legend's collaboration with Snoop Dog, on which both Legend and Snoop beg for forgiveness with stunning vulnerability.

The album's strength lies, above all, in its gentle, genial feel. When this vibe is applied to the ups and downs of relationships, it gives Legend a classy, sweet nature that is so rare among even the most respected contemporary R&B figures. Hopefully, Legend is starting a much-needed trend in today's music world.