When singer and songwriter John Legend first hit the scene with his 2004 debut “Get Lifted,” proudly brandishing the endorsement of his friend, champion and sometimes collaborator Kanye West, he seemed poised to do for R&B what West was doing for hip-hop: reconnecting with the music’s old-school roots while adding his own unique and modern musical aesthetic, and replacing the sexual braggadocio and thug life posing with a smarter, deeper look at the African-American experience.
Dethroning Usher and R. Kelly was a tough goal, but a fight worth fighting. Unfortunately, on his third album, the 29-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate has taken off the gloves and forfeited, choosing to take the far easier and perhaps more lucrative path of churning out bland and soulless easy-listening dross.
Over the sort of mindless, mildly mid-tempo R&B grooves and empty feel-good sentiments epitomized by the all-time nadir of the genre, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Legend surfs a tidal wave of romantic schmaltz, goaded on at some points by the occasional eruption of strings and overwrought orchestration, and at others relying only on his motel lounge piano and newly melodramatic vocal emoting. Meanwhile, to add the obligatory cross-promotional currency, he trots out a needless procession of cameos, from duets with Brandy (“Quickly”) and Estelle (on the ham-fisted reggae ditty “No Other Love”) to gratuitous raps by Andre 3000 (“Greenlight”) and West (on the once-again vocoder-tainted “It’s Over”).
In an interview with Billboard hyping this alleged evolution in his career, Legend protested at the suggestion that he’s gone adult contemporary: “I hate that term. That’s likening my music to the Kenny G’s of the world.” Sorry, John, but all that’s missing are the soprano sax and the flowing curls.