CD Review of Evolver by John Legend
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Anthony Hamilton, Ne-Yo, Van Hunt
Label
Columbia/G.O.O.D.
John Legend: Evolver

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he Onion once famously ran a picture of Will Smith with the headline “The Black Man Everyone at Work Can Agree On,” and with his 2004 debut, Get Lifted, John Legend became the R&B equivalent. His subtle neo-soul was sophisticated enough for connoisseurs of the genre, and non-threatening enough for people who normally tend to avoid anything “urban” – and mothers-in-law across the country swooned when Legend performed at the 2007 Grammys with John Mayer and Corinne Bailey Rae (unofficial statistics indicate that at least two dozen Starbucks spontaneously opened for business during their performance; if Norah Jones had joined them, Dunkin’ Donuts might have been put out of business once and for all).

To some ears, however, Legend’s music is a little too smooth, and with his third studio album, Evolver, he makes an earnest effort to avoid Brian McKnight territory, mussing up his sound a little, dabbling with reggae beats, and corralling a handful of guests with street cred. Judging from the slightly saucy opening track, “Green Light,” you might think he’s been listening to too many Usher records, but as the album wears on, Legend’s intentions become clearer – what he’s really shooting for is pre-“Woman in Red” Stevie Wonder, and a nice balance of the dance floor and the boudoir. He almost pulls it off, too.

Evolver is, for the most part, quite good. Legend isn’t the most natural dance-pop singer in the game – his voice is too smooth to sound anything but sensitive, even when he’s looking for a random hookup (“Quickly”) or propositioning a close female friend (“Cross That Line”) – but he’s a smart enough songwriter to understand his strengths and weaknesses, and it’s a tribute to that intelligence that he never allows his reach to exceed his grasp here. It also speaks volumes that even though he occasionally rubs shoulders with some famous names (Andre 3000 on “Green Light” and Kanye West on “It’s Over,” to give two examples), he manages to keep the spotlight to himself.

Where the album falters, oddly enough, is on the oh-so-sincere ballad front. You’d think Legend would be sharp enough to avoid recording a song that has the whiff of something R. Kelly would write in the 10 minutes after finding out he was being arraigned again – but you’d be wrong, because that’s exactly what “This Time” sounds like. Similarly, the Obama-stumping “If You’re Out There” might sound great playing behind a campaign ad, but taken on its own merits, it really isn’t all that inspirational; in fact, it takes Legend right to the heart of Brian McKnight territory.

On balance, though, Evolver manages to live up to its title while providing plenty of solid entertainment value in the bargain. Whether the new directions he goes in here turn out to be short-lived (and probably commercially calculated) detours remains to be seen, but no matter where he goes from here, Legend has shown some enviable range and command of his songcraft here.

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