In theory, the neosoul movement — those retro-minded artists who pledge allegiance to a bygone era of organically made black music — is a wonderful thing. But let’s be real: It has yet to deliver any true titans. Sure, youngbloods like Van Hunt, Bilal, and D’Angelo have their strengths, but they just aren’t in the same stratosphere as Stevie or Smokey or Marvin.
On the evidence of his major-label debut, Get Lifted, John Legend may be one of the few new jacks in a league with the above old-schoolers. A New York-based singer-songwriter-producer-session man, Legend (né Stephens) has been a background singer-pianist for everyone from Jay-Z (”Lucifer”) and Alicia Keys (”If I Ain’t Got You”) to Kanye West, who signed Legend to his GOOD label and exec-produced Lifted.
Legend would probably be big news even without the imprimatur of his multi-Grammy nominee mentor. While West cowrote the first single, ”Used to Luv U,” he doesn’t impose his style on the album, which eschews the R&B trend of using hip-hop to cover up undercooked melodies; there are no time-wasting shout-outs or gratuitous samples. When West pops up rapping about his penis in ”Number One” — a sly, joyous track that recalls the O’Jays — it’s more a goof than an outrage. Even Snoop Dogg’s cameo on ”I Can Change” is refreshing, with a love-struck Dogg renouncing his mack-daddy ways (”[You] make me wanna lay down the pimpin’ and step my love game up”).
Like Ray Charles, Legend joins the spiritual and the secular in satisfying, sexy ways. ”Let’s Get Lifted” conflates erotic rapture with religious epiphany, then takes it to the streets with a wild sex-as-drug metaphor: ”Once you get a hit of this/You won’t ever want to quit.” Elsewhere, the emotion-ripping ”She Don’t Have to Know” offers a meditation on infidelity (”You know you wrong, but it’s so strong”).
Almost every tune seduces with catchy hooks and soulful singing that sidesteps the melismatic overkill that’s murdering R&B. Perhaps the most perfectly realized song is also the simplest. ”Ordinary People,” an exquisite ballad (produced by the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am) about the everyday challenges faced by couples, uses only voice and piano. It’s both immediately familiar and intensely exotic. That it is being released as a single is miraculous, since the less-is-more concept seems anathema to so many latter-day producers. He may hang with hip-hoppers, but Legend knows good singing and good playing are what ordinary people want most.