John Legend is a household name, but I feel like it wouldn’t be too crazy to say that most people probably couldn’t name more than five of his songs, if that. Either way, people still love John Legend. John Legend is undeniably amazing, and pretty much always has been, but was “All of Me” all it took for him to become a universally loved musician? Think about it: why do people really love John Legend?
First of all, let the record show that I’m with the pack on this one—I also hold the belief that John Legend is undeniably amazing, but I also haven’t enjoyed one of albums completely since his debut Get Lifted in 2004. Nevertheless, I love John Legend. It baffled me, thinking about this review, realizing that I had no idea what made John Legend so goddamn legendary, and then it hit me.
We only ever see John Legend at Award Shows and they have the power to make him look like a god.
- 2014 Grammy’s: “All of Me”
- 2015 Oscars: “Glory” with Common from the movie Selma
- 2015 Grammy’s: “Glory” with Common from the movie Selma, again
- 2016 Grammy’s: “Easy” for the Lionel Richie Tribute
- 2017 Grammy’s: “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys for the In Memoriam segment
- 2017 Oscars: “La La Land” medley
Music wise, 2004’s Get Lifted was amazing, but other than a 2008 hit with “Green Light (feat. André 3000),” a dance track that was seemingly out of John Legend’s wheelhouse yet still worked incredibly well (a.k.a. it was my jam), that was pretty much all he had. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like John Legend doesn’t have a truly amazing voice that makes me want to cry for eternity every time he sings, it’s just that… to put it lightly… his albums were really boring.
This all changed when “All of Me” was released in 2013. Not the whole “his albums were really boring” part (because 2013’s Love in the Future suffered the same fate his previous four albums had as well), but the part where he figured out how to make us fall in love with him even though he hadn’t released a great album in ten years.
For starters “All of Me” is an amazing song. It was recognized by the 2014 Grammy’s when he performed it live, and he hasn’t left an awards shows since (see his list of performances above). If you think about it, it’s kind of really smart. John Legend realized that he wasn’t going to make critically acclaimed albums, so instead he focused on making critically acclaimed award show performances. And it fucking worked.
When it comes to his sixth record Darkness and Light, John Legend decided to take “a different approach,” or at least that’s what he thought he was doing. Partnering with Blake Mills, producer of Alabama Shakes’ excellent record Sound & Color, John Legend set out to make his most personal and emotional record yet. In some ways he succeeded, but overall, it’s no different from any other John Legend record.
In an interview with Billboard, Blake Mills compared Legend’s material to that of Marvin Gaye. “We’re still talking about ‘What’s Going On’ some 40 years later,” he says, and although “‘Sexual Healing’ is a great track,” “when we think of Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’ is the song that comes up.” And it’s true to what I said above, while songs like “Ordinary People” and “All of Me” are great, John Legend makes a lot of forgettable music. He’s no Marvin Gaye though, that guy has albums. I mean, Let’s Get It On?!?!?. But it’s a helpful analogy.
The first track “I Know Better” addresses his self-reflection towards a more emotional and personal record:
“They say sing what you know
But I’ve sung what they want
Some folks do what they’re told
But baby this time I won’t
Legend is just a name
I know better than to be so proud
I won’t drink in all this fame
I’ll take more love than I’m allowed
And if music chooses me to sing, I let her
I’ll sing what I know, yes
I know better”
It’s some of the best lyrics he’s ever written, and also one of the better songs. The only problem is… he doesn’t do it. Past this song, it’s back to the usual John Legend, and while some songs are better than others, it’s ultimately the safe and forgettable R&B he’s always made.
“Penthouse Floor” is the contemporary, down-tempo sounding “Green Light” with André 3000 replaced by an out-of-his-element Chance the Rapper, “Surefire” is some marketable template-radio-pop for moms, and “Love Me Now” sounds like if “All of Me” was written by Aloe Blacc and Avicii.
The record isn’t all bad however, as the title suggests there’s some light peaking in between the clouds. The title-track featuring Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes is basically a decent Alabama Shakes song, “What You Do To Me” is catchy, and “Overload” might be lyrically boring but the melody is great (plus Miguel). Essentially, Blake and Legend gave it a real shot, and in doing so, made the best John Legend record in a real long time, but that’s not to say that anything changed about how John Legend records simply function.
It doesn’t really matter though, because all he needs is one really great song per album to perform at the Grammy’s, or one really good song for a movie to perform at the Oscars, and maybe even also the Grammy’s, and we’ll love him anyway. He’s just a likeable guy with a great smile, a great voice, and great connections (dare I talk about John Legend without mentioning his album with The Roots or countless choruses for Kanye West). Like I said at the beginning, Darkness and Light, and most of John Legend’s records, are okay at best, but I’m just going to love him anyway.
After Beauty and the Beast hits some success, who knows, maybe he’ll be back in 2018 performing it with Ariana Grande. The point is that John Legend, regardless of how well his albums have done, has been given the stage to be a musical god, and he’s been owning it for the past four years.