Though it appears that he emerged fully-formed in 2004 from the mind of Kanye West, John Legend got his start on the East Coast in the mid 1990s as John Stephens, a promising neo-soul piano-player and songwriter. After he garnered the attention of Lauryn Hill--on whose 1998 classic Legend played--many high-profile studio gigs followed, including a pivotal one co-writing and playing on Kanye West's smash debut. West, impressed with Stephens's abilities, signed him (as "John Legend") to his production company and co-produced his debut album, GET LIFTED, a soul-hip-hop hybrid that wowed critics and listeners alike. Thus rechristened, a Legend was born.
Given the sped-up classic soul samples with which Kanye West has made his mark, it comes as no surprise that the producer/rapper would pick a tradition-minded R&B singer as his first big pet project. Legend first made his name on Philly's incense-clouded, '70s-obsessed neo-soul scene, then found his way to New York and became West's right-hand man in the studio. His patron's pop smarts serve Legend well--while many contemporary R&B records rely too heavily on a singer's cadence and skill to carry underdeveloped tunes, Legend and West have composed genuine songs like the perky "Number One," which has a lovestruck West jabbering that he no longer believes that "my heart don't got nothing to do with my penis." (It's way more convincing than Snoop Dogg's pledge of love on the next track, "I Can Change.") And even when the melodies are slight, West slides some nasty bass lines underneath, hinting at just enough of a hip-hop sensibility to keep the album from drifting into retro nostalgia. Yet Legend is no mere producer's plaything. His voice isn't immediately distinctive; he's neither as careworn as Anthony Hamilton nor as creamy as D'Angelo. But his gift for restraint sets him apart: the sex-as-drug metaphor of the title track is hardly fresh, but Legend delivers it smoothly enough to make it work, without pressing the issue. All bedroom come-ons have been used before. This late in the game, it's a matter of how well you use 'em. --Keith Harris
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