With its relatability (and humming-bility), “Ordinary People” quickly established John Legend as, for lack of better description, the next great neo-soul legend. The Pennsylvania-bred vocalist’s vintage songwriting ability effectively combined with a velvety tenor and piano chops for days, making him a marquee signee at Kanye West’s Getting Out Our Dreams (G.O.O.D.) Music label. Lately, however, Legend has become a dependable vocalist for the likes of rapper Rick Ross and not much more; thus, his new album Love In The Future arrives as an attempt to redeem his initial spark and status.
Although “Ordinary People” was followed with a solid debut in Get Lifted, Legend’s second and third albums, Once Again and Revolver, were largely unremarkable, yielding only two singles that measured up to his first: “Save Room” and “Green Light,” respectively. As result, the would-be-legend had the unenviable distinction of being relegated to the margins of his own genre, an afterthought to artists who emerged after him and attained mainstream success after crossing over (Frank Ocean, Miguel, Robin Thicke).
Still, writing Legend off would be a mistake. It is evident that he is an artist who seeks to be accepted on his own terms. There’s nothing inherently bad about Legend’s pursuit of more classic sound than his peers. On Love In The Future, he doesn’t pander to mainstream tastes but instead sticks to his own, which 99 percent of the time consists of classic mid-tempo love songs and ballads. The downside of this repertoire is that these songs – “Hold On Longer” and “Tomorrow” are perfect examples – have the potential to sound great only to guests in Legend’s living room or in a small club as he belts them out from behind a piano. As recorded music, a song such as “Dreams” even has Bryan Adams-esque epic quality but just doesn’t resonate as well as it would performed live.
Legend’s soulful vocals made Rick Ross’ “Rich Forever,” so it’s no surprise the Miami rapper returns the favor with a guest verse on Love In the Future’s “Who Do We Think We Are.” The song doesn’t stylistically depart from the aforementioned formula, but Legend’s vocals soar and the track sounds majestic. There’s just nothing else on the album that comes close to this grandeur.
At 20 tracks, which include 17 full songs, two interludes and an intro, Love In the Future is somewhat bloated. At times, Legend drones on, seemingly disinterested in entertaining his listeners. This could be perceived negatively, but following a summer ruled by Robin Thicke’s uptempo Blurred Lines, Legend does deserve credit for ushering in the fall with an album chock full of classic soul.