John Legend Pours His Heart Out With Ambitious Versatility on ‘Bigger Love’
As 2020 continues to be an incredibly trying year, many artists are serving up their most nourishing fare in hopes of lifting spirits. And, while the timing might seem a little off for a release of upbeat fare in the midst of widespread racial unrest, there is hardly a more opportune moment for the saccharine love balladry of John Legend. His latest album, the appropriately titled “Bigger Love,” is an uplifting record that might be Legend’s most ambitious to date. With soul legend Raphael Saadiq as executive producer, leading the same ensemble that backed Legend on his massive Christmas album, Legend revives cherished soul sounds of the past and nods to current trends, covering all bases, and returning inevitably to his trademark belters. There are triumphs and misfires, with Legend cementing a place among the greatest R&B talents, but descending into a mawkishness from which it’s hard to recover.
Opener “Ooh La” brings the album with a bold blend of styles that dart between eras. Legend samples the Flamingos’ 1959 doo wop hit “I Only Have Eyes For You,” crooning over it in a way that bridges the gap between R&B from periods so stylistically removed that the historical record offers few satisfying clues to the music’s evolution. He drops a trap beat over this, and even emulates the cadences that typify that genre, somehow managing to make them sound as classic as the doo wop, in an impressive colliding of worlds. “Actions” continues to craft songs from loaded pop culture references, with Legend employing the same sample used in Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “The Next Episode,” and riffing off Snoop’s “la da da” intro, spinning it into something equally instantaneous. The memorable chorus of “Actions speak louder than love songs” is a surprising sentiment from Legend of all people.
The celebratory, ‘70’s-informed stylings of “I Do” lead into the even more gleefully throwback sounds of “One Life,” on which Legend worked with the enigmatic Anderson .Paak. At times, Legend sounds like he can compress full classic R&B albums into single songs, sifting through signs and signifiers, and channeling spirits of bygone eras. “Wild” places Legend over crashing drums and electric guitar solo indulgence of the most shamelessly ‘80s variety, while the title takes a detour to a festive island setting, placing Legend atop diwali riddim-style percussion. Legend has a way of recycling melodic snippets that have long floated around, varying them enough to avoid complete plagiarism. The key bit in the chorus here recalls Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” and surely many other hits from through the ages, yet still sounds fresh enough. “U Move, I Move” also features a suspiciously familiar refrain, but offers plenty to enjoy, pairing Legend with Jhene Aiko. The two worked together on Aiko’s last album “Chilombo,” and their chemistry is out of this world. For all his romantic balladry, Legend doesn’t launch into duets as often as one might expect, and when he does, he makes sure to make it count.
“Favorite Place” is a sappy number in the tradition of the ubiquitous, steamy, R&B soul jam, with a beat that grounds it in the present moment, and such priceless lyrics as “I love it when my rollercoaster dips right into your ocean.” When “Slow Cooker” comes around, Legend outdoes himself, mastering an aesthetic that he has hitherto only coyly toyed with. Initially a song about taking the time to think things through, Legend gives it the full Marvin Gaye treatment, churning out a perfect example of how R&B can turn anything sexual. Backed by a band that capture a lost, warm richness in soul music, he builds to an epic falsetto chorus with a passion that rivals anything from Gaye, and meanders through a soundscape of charming horn section bits and other throwback features. Legend alternates gracefully between ambitious, florid outpourings and more understated, groove-based tracks. On “Focused,” he cleans the palate, and lets a rootsy guitar-led arrangement lead the way, channeling the likes of Otis Redding in his melismatic bellowing.
“Conversations In the Dark” brings the inevitable declaration of unconditional love, with gospel choirs in the chorus and all of the expected works. It’s a feat of remarkable restraint for Legend to have waited until this far into the album to get so sappy. At any rate, he goes all out on this number. “Don’t Walk Away” is a festive island romp that returns to the stylings of the title track, and comes across as a relative throwaway, with a cookie-cutter chorus, but a brief appearance by reggae artist Koffee adds some colorful personality. Legend plays it safe throughout the album, rebounding to classic, tested sounds after every measured, trendy diversion. “Remember Us,” a song that looks back on departed figures like Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle, finds him at his most classically redolent, crooning over subdued, jazzy stylings and evocative strings. Having rapper Rhapsody drop a verse on this of all songs is an odd choice, as the clashing detour cheapens the whole affair. Luckily, it’s only a brief misfire.
Legend is generally set on turning out readymade hits, but he does occasionally take whimsical darts, as on the haunting, string-laden “I’m Ready,” a song inspired by a particular Marvin Gaye period, the era of albums like 1978’s “Here, My Dear.” “Always,” a 2011 cut that never made it to “Love In the Future,” comes revamped, resurfacing from the retro excursions with another instantaneous chorus. Finally, “Never Break” ends the album in full, soaring, Disney balladry style, with Legend making grand declarations about mountains, eternity, and whatnot, belting, “We will never break,” with a Celine Dion level of subtlety.
“Bigger Love” is the type of album that a defining voice of a particular genre delivers to please all fans. It’s a work of ambitious scale, with its 16 tracks covering just about everything one could reasonably look for in a John Legend release. There are steamy slow jams, sweeping balladry, throwback numbers, and Afro-Carribean touches. Legend benefits immensely from the aid of masterful musicians and producers whose rich backdrops allow him to effectively tap into bygone eras, and revive a lost richness in his retro excursions. Legend is a R&B and soul singer of the highest ranks, and the variety on this album proves him versatile within these genres. He has never been averse to grand, histrionic gestures, and his sappiness on this album can be a bit hard to take. That said, it could hardly be delivered with more soulful skill and passion.
“Bigger Love” is available June 19 on Apple Music.