By Daniel Garrett
John Legend, Love is the Future
Executive Producers John Legend, Kanye West, Dave Tozer
The pianist and singer John Legend’s album Love in the Future is a return to the kind of confident sentimentality that once was the province of most popular music stars, but for years now love has been replaced by sexual aggression and contempt and social violence as focus in a lot of mainstream culture. Legend’s song collection is emotional, lush, and contemporary: it is betting that there is still an audience that wants to hear a young, confident and successful African-American male make such romantic declarations. The album does have an occasional edge, but it is not one that draws blood or outrage. On Love is the Future, “Open Your Eyes” has the near-obligatory rock guitar (a self-conscious affect); but in the song “Made to Love” the martial beat and electronic pulses and female wailing are more genuinely appealing in their contrasting accents. Of course, love has a greater chance of surviving in a life that is not stressed by financial woes and social insecurity. That chance is both desired by some and resented by others. Addressing the ongoing call for humility and the critique of arrogance in popular culture and minority neighborhoods, something that can be a cover for a denial of the importance of ambition and accomplishment—for the comfort of perpetual losers—is the song “Who Do We Think We Are,” a work that affirms success and material indulgences. It has humor as it rehearses the classic braggadocio of hip-hop, but it also suggests something true: earned status is something of which to be proud. Luxury, if you have it, is to be enjoyed. Happiness is not shameful.
“Love in the Future is focused and consistent. Legend hits the sweet spot and sticks mostly to what works for him, which is love ballads. One thing that separates John Legend from the average R&B crooner is his ability to appeal to listeners who wouldn’t normally find themselves checking into the genre. His experimentation with different sounds and styles makes his work accessible to just about any fan of music. There’s hardly any filler on Love in the Future. It’s just packed with 16 quality tracks,” wrote critic Logan Smithson of Pop Matters (October 1, 2013). Music lovers who have followed John Legend would not expect less: from live recordings at the clubs Sounds of Brazil and the Knitting Factory to the studio albums Get Lifted (2004) and Once Again (2006) to Evolver (2008) and Wake Up! (2010), John Stephens performing as John Legend has sustained a devoted, satisfied audience. He garnered attention for his collaborations with performers such as Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, and Talib Kweli before exciting listeners with Get Lifted. Commenting on Get Lifted in the magazine Entertainment Weekly (January 10, 2005), Tom Sinclair named John Legend as one of the few singers to emerge who might become equated with the kind of quality work done by Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Of Get Lifted, Sinclair declared, “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.” Following Get Lifted and Once Again, Legend’s album Evolver elicited two very different response from Paste magazine critics (January 8, 2009). “I’m seduced by ‘Take Me Away,’ just one of several strong, sexy and sometimes surprising tracks on Evolver. Known for his skills on the keys and a voice that retains a lovely purity, even in falsetto territory, Legend does indeed evolve with this record,” wrote Christine Van Dusen, while her colleague Matt Fink called the collection “scattered and lethargic.” (Is it fair to think that this is the difference between a female and male sensibility? John Legend is debonair, and few men can compare. That can be galling.) John Legend, a conscientious as well as glamorous figure, has performed with Al Green, Angelique Kidjo, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Cassandra Wilson and other distinguished musicians; and Legend, who worked on the soundtrack for the 2013 film 12 Years A Slave, is known for some intelligent public speeches, but he is best known for his own love songs. Already, Love is the Future is getting much more radio airplay than the political Wake Up!
“Love all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections” sings John Legend in Love in the Future’s “All of Me,” a song that promises to give and accept all. The singer’s voice is big, loud, and sometimes rough in its exuberance. Legend gives a firm vocal tone to “Save the Night,” a song of seduction. “Tomorrow” has a Doctor John musical quote at its beginning, the salute of one singing piano man to another. A brief interpretation of Anita Baker’s “Angel” is performed as a duet with Stacy Barthe. However, romance takes a turn with its presentation as a disturbed state of passion in “Asylum,” with Legend’s high-voiced singing suggesting—questionably—that male vulnerability as something other than normal. A metallic rhythm accompanies a melodious song about escape from duty, about romance as sex: “Caught Up.” I suspect that John Legend is capable of much more, and I am curious about what he will do next.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.