"...Once you hear the album, you'll know that no one else is doing what I'm doing. I just try to keep making music that I love and believe in, and I let the trends go where they go." John "Legend" Stephens, 2004 (The Dallas Morning News)
Love him or loathe him, take him or leave him, John Legend has always been clear about his intentions and his artistry. In fact, when he dropped his debut on his 26th birthday in 2004, the title track spelled it out for all the world to hear: "I've got something new for you, when it hits you won't know what to do/Relax,let me move you. Don't resist it's in the air, just one taste will take you there/Let it flow right through you. I know you getting tired of the same ol' thing/But I'mma break the rules, gonna change the game."
So, with that in mind, the seismic shift that John makes on his fourth studio CD, Love In The Future, is both unorthodox and anticipated: instead of just the expected sprawling piano-anchored ballads, hip-hop-recalling R&B jams and occasional flirtations with pop and his gospel church choir director roots, he stretches stylistically into techno, electronica and even hints of jazz and trip-hop. If you thought that 2008's Evolver was brash, take some Dramamine before pressing 'play' because Legend's latest is an even wilder ride.
Brimming with songs about the kaleidoscopic stages of finding, exploring and expressing love (likely inspired by John's recent engagement to his longtime girlfriend, Chrissy Teigen), ....Future is expansive and invigorated, with a heady list of heavy-hitting collaborators (Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, Bink!, 88 Keys, Hit Boy and Kanye West, to name a few) and evocative, yet organic selections that range from methodical to mesmerizing: "All Of Me" is conventional enough, a vulnerable and soaring tribute to the woman who captured his heart with "all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections," but the irresistible "Caught Up" draws comparisons to the echo-filled grooves of England's Portishead, anchored with a thundering percussive base and optimistic abandon about rocketing headfirst into paradise----"I'm tired of my job, I'm tired of my boss/I'm taking you out, you're taking it off/The only thing on my mind is how we're about to get it on/ I wanna get caught up in your love toniiiiiiiiight....."
Despite the implications alluded to within its title, John Legend's present collection is flush with vintage elements; not in a trite and cliche-type fashion, but in a rediscovered and reconfigured way: the ego-tripping audacity of "Who Do We Think We Are," featuring Rick Ross, is modern, but its dusty "Mr. Big Stuff" sample adds heft to the mix. The entrancing, weathered and reflective "Tomorrow" could be a 1970s-era b-side, Legend's smooth tenor nudging a woman past her comfort zone into blissful new beginnings----"If I offered you the chance to live tonight, then take it/we can make it, don't wait for tomorrow....we waited all our lives, don't waste another day." ----and "Wanna Be Loved" is another throwback that may provoke visions of Legend in a disco lounge rocking platform shoes and a polyester suit. But since his delivery is so cool and confident throughout, the performances are 'effective' rather than 'affected,' which makes all the difference.
As bold and beautiful as ....Future is----"We Loved It," featuring Seal, is a moving and soul-stretching performance, "The Beginning" is a giddy tumble into monogamy and forever-after ("Pick some names, boy or girl/Then we'll change, change the world") and "Open Your Eyes" is a competent cover of the Bobby Caldwell classic----some songs are cloyingly arranged or deviate so far from Legend's repertoire that they're borderline mimicry: "Hold On Longer" has a gossamer glide, but is very Barry....as in Manilow (how positive that is depends on how you feel about the performer). A rendering of the Anita Baker signature song, "Angel," (with Stacy Barthe), is frustratingly brief and "Aim High" is meant to be tender and comforting, but Legend's trademark vocal creaks and mannerisms are self-consciously applied and nearly mocks the sentiment in the process.
However, just as the singer, songwriter, occasional actor and philanthropist explains in the spry mission statement jam, "So Gone," John Legend told you what time it was from the jump; he is who he is and after a decade of awards and accolades, you've already proven that you like it: "When the teacher said to me, 'Baby who do you want to be?'/I said 'I don't know, but I know I'm going to lead.'