There was a time when I’d go to J&R Music World or a CD store and have so many albums in my hand that I’d have to stop and start making choices. “Gee — seven CDs? That’s a lot. Gotta put two down…. but who??” Nowadays I don’t have that problem anymore. As a matter of fact, I rarely buy CDs at all. Last album I bought….(wait — going to rack to check….)…. Kanye West – Late Registration. (And that was a disappointment.) Last album before that? I can’t remember. The point is that either one of two things is happening: either I’m becoming the old fart I told myself I would never become and I just can’t keep pace with the changing music…. or music right now is complete garbage. I think it might be a little bit of both.
There are a few artists that hold a place in the “inner sanctum” of my music collection. Artists whose new releases I wouldn’t think twice about buying. Without hearing a note from the track, I’d make my way to Best Buy, look for the CD cover and take it to the check out counter. The list of artists who hold that distinction is getting smaller, but John Legend was one of a about 15 artists that had recently found his way onto that list.
Back in 2004, my sister asked me if I’d heard his album yet. At the time I brushed her off. I mean, I had already given it a shot. I opened Napster and listened to the first four tracks of Get Lifted and John Legend just struck me as one of these artists who had talent, but wasn’t quite suited for the up-tempo songs he was singing. It’s like listening to a fast Babyface song — most of the time it just doesn’t work. But, on the recommendation of my only blood sibling, I gave it another shot one lazy afternoon.
I logged into Napster and (free of charge, of course) I played Get Lifted again….from the very first track. As I suspected, it was a lot like listening to a Brian McKnight album during the sections where he’s singing up-tempo songs. You just wanna reach through the stereo and smack him. But this time I held my patience and listened a bit farther into the album. And while the up-tempo tracks on Get Lifted aren’t quite as bad as those of Brian McKnight, a funny thing happens if you hang in there until the ballads kick in on Track 8. Somewhere between the end of Track 7 (I Can Change) and Track 8 (Ordinary People), Get Lifted takes on a completely different persona. The entire complexion of the album changes. It goes from faux up-tempo “me too” unoriginal, average R&B album and slowly becomes a spiritual, soulful, emotional, trip. Ordinary People — for all the thousands of radio and music video plays that it got in 2004 and 2005 — is still one of the most incredible ballads. Apologetic in it’s claim — “we’re just ordinary people…we don’t know which way to go” — it’s a rare ballad that doesn’t promise women the moon and the stars. It simply admits it’s faults — basically, being human — and suggests something that perhaps more of us should consider in our relationships — “maybe we should take it slow?”
Ordinary People wasn’t the only gem on Get Lifted. Refuge (When It’s Cold Outside) is probably my favorite song on the album. It’s a reminder or what’s really important when things get difficult:
“When it’s cold outside…no need to worry cause I’m so warm inside….you give me peace when the storm’s outside — cause we’re in love I know it’ll be alright….”
On the strength of that song alone, he had me. But, Stay With You, So High and Live It Up are all incredible ballads on their own. Any one of them could have had incredible commercial success with the right promotion. That second half of the album made me have to swallow my pride, eat a hearty dose of humble pie and go back and confess to my younger sibling the thing that all older siblings dread saying…. “I was wrong.” But this time I was happy to be wrong. Legend was here to reclaim the real soul legacy in the spirit of Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston. And I was ready to dust off a spot in my CD case for him. Right next to Badu. All I needed was his follow up CD.
John Legend made us wait awhile for his sophomore release. I waited all of 2005 and most of 2006, listening to Get Lifted and live renditions of those songs to tide me over. When I heard that Once Again was set to release in October of 2006, I was hyped. Upon hearing the first track, Save Room, while many people were disappointed, I was even more inspired. One of the things that makes John Legend so special is his originality. Save Room is the kind of song that only a true vanguard can release as his debut single. In short, it’s John Legend doing John Legend. He’s not trying to knock us over and scream in our ears, “Hey, I’m back!!” He’s just using that incredible voice to bless us with melodies. Save Room isn’t a ballad. It’s up-tempo, but by no means a song you’d hear “in the club”. It kinda sounds like a remake of a 70’s song. And it’s really, really charming. It didn’t take long before I was singing it around the house.
And so, it was with much anticipation that I waited for the album to release on October 24. Strangely, I had to wait around for the UPS delivery man that day, so I couldn’t make my way to Best Buy. Instead, I was “forced” to listen to the album on my Napster account instead.
After a few listens, I’ve since added the UPS man to my Christmas card list.
I don’t even know what to say. It’s almost as if Burt Bacharach and Perry Como kidnapped John and forced him to sing songs from their unreleased library at gunpoint. It’s really that bad. Save Room is the best song on the album, for me — by far. Heaven Knows is one of the few tracks that are tolerable, but by no means at the level that the Get Lifted tracks were at. Slow Dance is another good track and one of the only signs that the John Legend of 2004 still lives. But when you listen to tracks like Another Again, Where Did My Baby Go, Maxine, Show Me, and Stereo you’ll find yourself reaching for the CD jewel case (or the iPod) to see just how far from the end of the CD you are.
Who is this guy? And what has he done with John Legend??
I’m really at a loss for words here. Perhaps Legend has decided that he’s reached a level of success with the debut album and now he’s free to make the music that he wants to make. If so, I commend him for being brave enough to take the road less traveled. One thing is for certain. Nobody is going to mistake this album for an “R&B/Soul” album. It’s not quite “Pop” either. “Easy Listening” might be the best section for Once Again. Perhaps I shouldn’t be knocking an album that is this difficult to categorize in this day of “cookie-cutter”, overproduced albums? Once Again is certainly original. But the thing that stands out most in my heart about this album is that it’s just not good music. Not because it can’t be classified by a genre. Not because it’s different from Get Lifted. To me, it’s not good mostly because it lacks soul. It’s almost as if he’s singing standards.
After this disappointment, I went to the CD rack to look for some musical inspiration…. but with a certain degree of doubt. Perhaps I was being too tough on John Legend? But then my hand made it’s way to Neil Young – Harvest. I’m sure Neil Young isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But there’s a undeniable soul that’s present in songs like Old Man, Words (Between the Lines of Age), Alabama, and Heart of Gold that finds it’s way into your spirit. Perhaps you’ll give it a listen and disagree. But give it a few spins. Listen to the words. You won’t find it in the soul section. But this is soul music, nonetheless. At least it certainly is, to me.
And as for John Legend? Well, the book isn’t closed on him yet. Perhaps this album will catch me off guard one day and cause me to post another retraction. But somehow I don’t think so. And with that, it’s over to the CD rack to grab some of the CDs I relegated to the bottom shelf and place them back in the section near that top that I had reserved (with hope) for John Legend. <Heavy, heavy, sigh.>