R&B sensation John Legend may be shooting up the charts, dominating the airwaves and making the collaboration rounds by working with Kanye West and others; but BV columnist Bomani Jones isn't so sure if he's anything more than Stevie Wonder knock-off.
Can't Get Enough of Legend?
For Myself & Others: You've Heard Legends Before
By Bomani Jones
John Legend's 'Get Lifted' dropped last week, the culmination of the strong buzz he built as Kanye West's keyboard player and by pushing albums on his Web site (which is selling from the trunk in the new millennium). While West is known for his use of samples, part of what separates those samples from others is his use of Legend and violinist Mira Ben-Ari to play the keys and strings that give them greater emphasis. Legend is one of the reasons the world has jumped on Yeezy's beats, and now he's set to parlay that into solo success. Obviously influenced by Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, Legend's record is the first release of 2005 to merit serious attention.
At the same time, I must admit that I'm leery of singers that play the piano well. There's nothing inherently bad about them, but observers tend to praise them a bit too quickly. In a time when many are bashed for their lack of artistry, it seems that all one needs to do to stay out of that bag is be able to play something original on the ivories. The best example of this is Alicia Keys, who was so overrated in 2001 that the world allowed her to pass off 'Fallin'' as something brilliant, ignoring the fact it was little more than a rehash of James Brown's 'It's a Man's World.'
It was with that skepticism that I originally viewed John Legend. Legend's talent is undeniable, so noticeable that his skills forced a crowd of college students -- and me -- to stop booing him when he opened for Kanye at Duke University in 2004 (you'd boo, too, if you were forced to endure a full set from Consequence and GLC). His voice is not one for the ages, but it's easy to feel the emotion behind his songs when he's behind the microphone. He seems to be nice, but cats like him force me to do a double take. Is the affinity I feel for him a product of my unequivocal love for Stevie and Donny? Is the critical acclaim he's received a by-product of comparative assessment? In other words, is he dope because so few are?
Those are tough calls to make. What isn't hard to figure out is that the man can write a song, something that makes him much different from Keys. He manages to be sensitive without being completely corny, a balance exhibited well by his first single, 'Used to Love You.' He's got too many love songs for my tastes (there's gotta be more to life than your lady, dog), but the way he phrases his thoughts aren't clich‚. The biggest weakness of 'Get Lifted' is nitpicky. Some of the tracks -- 'Refuge,' in particular -- were more powerful when released as live tracks (check 'Soul Sessions Vol. 1') than they are in studio. But if that's the biggest critique I can come with, Legend's doing good work.
But here's the biggest shame of what's out there in R&B these days (or not out there, more accurately): Substandard music can actually force someone to question a good thing when it's heard. Unsweetened tea will taste like Kool-Aid to a man in the desert, so it can be hard to tell if what's being sipped really has flavor. Maybe that seems hyperbolically harsh on most singers, but it's even more unfair to the ones who make strong records. It seems like John Legend will pass the taste test, though. Let's hope there will be more folks worth sampling.
Jan. 7, 2005
-one of those "bad" Williams fans that everyone keeps talking about
OFFICIAL BLACKSMITH OF THE ROYAL COURT
I don't mind straight people as long as they act gay in public!
Only cause they are one of the few young R&B artists to hit it big who can sit behind the piano and play and sing. Alicia has to remind us of that in every video she has too.
I'd rather see young R&B singers playing instruments and singing live as opposed to lipsynching and showing off some outfit and/or hairstyle that's supposed to make us think that they're really a performer when in several cases it's just covering up their lack of talent.
John Legend, Alicia Keys, India.Arie and whoever else, keep playing!