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John Legend - 'Evolver'

A New Direction

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John Legend - 'Evolver'
Image © Sony/BMG.
Evolver, released in the U.S. on Oct. 28, 2008, is John Legend's third major-label album, and on it, he takes his music in a different direction than the one he's followed in the past. For the most part, Legend's piano - until now the instrument that's most exemplified his sound and style - has been put on the back burner, replaced by drum machines and synthesizers. Likewise, his smooth, soulful vocals now have more of a bright veneer. As the album's title implies, Legend definitely has evolved: as of now, no longer is he a lounge singer type; this album is clearly his bid at making his sound more radio friendly.

A Different Path

Legend's newfound focus on crafting pop hits and experimenting with his sound is exemplified by the album's well-received first single, "Green Light," which features OutKast's Andre 3000. The song, with it's synthesized beat, computerized handclaps and catchy chorus, is literally unlike any other song Legend has recorded throughout his career, and is arguably his first bona fide club banger. Longtime fans of his may have been surprised by the musical direction he went in with the song, but there's no arguing that it's been a move that has paid off for him, since the song is a certified hit.

But "Green Light" doesn't signify the only new path that Legend decides to follow here: on "No Other Love," featuring his protege, the British singer Estelle, Legend goes for a Caribbean flavor on one of his songs for the first time. Another first is the addictive, dancehall reggae saturated track "Can't Be My Lover," which features legendary Jamaican toaster Buju Banton. And on the Kanye West-featured "It's Over," Legend switches from his usual nice guy role to brush off a former lover who keeps contacting him even though he's dumped her. "What do you keep callin' for, what do you keep callin' for? It's over, it's over," he cavalierly sings on the song. But despite the depressing subject matter this is probably one of the most amazingly upbeat break-up tunes you'll ever hear.

More Mainstream

Image © Sony/BMG.
Legend's evolution is also exemplified by "Quickly," a pop-influenced duet between him and Brandy that's more fit for Top 40 radio than any urban station. The same can be said for the song that follows it on the album, "Cross the Line," a too-sugary ode to when friendships evolve into romance.

Evolver, released in the U.S. on Oct. 28, 2008, is filled with bright, sunny tracks but none as bright or sunny as "If You're Out There," a pro-Barack Obama song about hope and changing the world for the better that Legend originally sang at the Democratic National Convention: "No more broken promises, no more calls to war, unless it's love and peace that we're really fighting for," he sings. "We can destroy hunger, we can conquer hate; put down the arms and raise your voice and join hands today." This song, along with Usher's new track, "Hush," just might herald a new wave of Obama-inspired political and "message" songs by some of R&B's brightest stars.

It may just be a coincidence, but most of Evolver's best tracks are the ones that feature guest performers. Although Legend is skilled enough to carry a full album by himself (his last album, 2006's Once Again contained no guest vocals) it's nice that this time out, he recruited some friends to join the party. And it's these friends more than the pop-influenced backing tracks, that best assist Legend's evolution into a more mainstream artist.

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