Neo-soul is such a bullshit genre signifier, crafted by the intrepid minds
of wily major-label suits intent on peddling mealy-mouthed rehash to Boomer
fools. When attached to any recently released music, the Greek prefix "neo,"
meaning "new," is astoundingly redundant. No other genre
of music is saddled with this calculated prefix (barring the lamentable,
fading nu-metal) because it wouldn't make any sense (neo-crunk, anyone?).
Within this unnecessary and grating definition, reasonably talented though by
no means universe-quaking artists like Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton
routinely get to spar on the comparison pages with forebears like Stevie
Wonder, Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin. This is a ludicrous mistake.
John Legend is evidently stuck with the same label. Best known as that guy
who sings on some of Kanye West's biggest and most well-produced hits ("Get
By," "This Way," "You Don't Know My Name"), Legend gets to do the
13-tracks-plus-an-intro thing as the flagship artist on West's Getting
Out Our Dreams music imprint. Seeing as how West was the unmitigated
breakout pop star of 2004, Legend stands a good chance of riding his
captain's Q rating to some success, but his debut is nothing to get bent out
of shape about.
There are some truly great songs on Lifted, like "Number One," which is
just about the happiest-sounding song to ever start with the lyric "You can't
I don't love you just because I cheat on you." Songs like this are usually
sung by self-serious, mook R&B/gospel phonies who sample Enya. Legend is at
least believable, and clearly having fun with his pain.
But the production is uneven throughout, and unsure if it wants to be hip-hop
crooning, deep soul, or cookie-cutter R&B. Too many of the songs are just
weak-kneed slow jams that deflate the urgency and vigor Legend bundles together
on "Number One" and "Let's Get Lifted" and "Live It Up," which features a
dazzling violin solo from "hip-hop violinist" Miri Ben-Ari. It should be
mentioned that these songs feature traditional hip-hop production with
crackling, possibly sampled drums that give Legend's lacking charisma a
boost. The less lively contributions are typically sitting in front of his
keyboard or piano.
This is basically capable, occasionally nondescript soul music with a
couple of rapper guest spots, the most ridiculous of which is Snoop Dogg on
"I Can Change." Last seen querying "Can U Control Yo Hoe?" on his album,
Snoop has the gall to quote Sam Cooke and let the ladies know he can
"change" his evil ways. Which is a marvelous paradox for a man who raps
about hitting women. Worse still, he can't really rap very well anymore.
Typecast as a neo-soul artist, Legend wastes his assets: classically trained fingers and wounded voice (one that sometimes lacks range, but in an
endearing way). Lifted, a sometimes-soaring debut, is like a bowl of Honeycomb cereal: sweet and tasty when it crunches, frustrating
trash when it gets soggy. Go easy on the milk.