Review Summary: One of the best classic soul/R&B throwbacks in recent memory.
It's pretty easy to initially pass John Legend off as the male version of Alicia Keys. Similarly unbelievable talent in both vocals and piano? Check. Similar 60s soul-inspired vocal melodies and songwriting? Check. Both of them having dashes of hip-hop here and there? Check. But in the end, I believe the comparisons can be quite unfair. The thing that really sets John Legend apart from Alicia Keys and other peers is the humility involved in his music. While there are plenty of flashy moments vocally in his work, there's a certain subtlety you don't often hear in much of modern soul music. It's clear that Legend is more of a Marvin Gaye-esque R&B artist than, say, a James Brown-esque one in terms of dynamics and emotion. His songs often enter and exit more like a hum than a straight-up shout, and quite frankly, it's extremely refreshing. In the end, despite his talents, John Legend presents himself as much more flawed and relatable than most of his contemporaries. Hell, one of his biggest singles to date, "Ordinary People," presents relationships in this exact light. Still, it's hard to believe that its parent album Get Lifted
is as good as it is.
John Legend may be best known these days for his huge chart-topping smash "All of Me," but that song can't hold a candle to almost any song on Get Lifted
; this is one of the finest mainstream neo-soul albums you may ever come across. Filled with passionate jazz-slathered soul jams, the album's lyrical portraits of love's ups and downs are highly elevated by the beautiful chemistry between Legend's vocals and his piano playing. Some songs like "Stay with You" and "She Don't Have to Know" bring in more of a guitar-driven sound, but this soul man is at his best when his piano remains the dominant instrument. This is primarily why "Ordinary People" is such a masterpiece; the sparsity and intimacy of the song is easily its greatest strength, especially when combined with its realistic concept of flawed love. There are indeed some dark and sometimes immoral statements displayed on this thing, such as cheating on a lover in the hip-hop-influenced "Number One" and similar messages of infidelity in the jazz-based number "She Don't Have to Know" (the title really says it all). But in the end, the theme always returns to Legend's honesty and commitment in the face of these songs; Get Lifted
almost feels like somewhat of a concept album in this regard.
When it comes to the music, the album's a near-perfect mix of old-school soul and neo-soul: hip-hop, gospel, jazz, blues, and soul all make appearances, and the blend is just intoxicating. Much of the hip-hop influence likely comes from the fact that Get Lifted
is co-produced by Kanye West, who also brings an entertaining rap verse to "Number One." Similar to Alicia Keys' songwriting/production elements, Legend combines his piano/vocal work with thumping beats and incredibly catchy bass lines that further compliment the modern tinge this album gives to classic soul music. Still, despite the artificial beats and crystal-clear production, everything still sounds very organic due to Legend remaining the main focus of the album. This is incredibly evident from the intro "Prelude" which is largely driven by the gorgeous jazz chords and effortless arpeggios that John plays, and continues into the more nimble tracks like "Used to Love U" and the beautifully layered vocals of the title track. The only gripe I have is that the album would certainly have benefited from a few more energetic songs here and there. The album almost never deviates from its generally midtempo formula, although the slight musical repetition is mainly derived from how stylistically consistent the record is. So really, it's not a huge blemish as long as you don't expect anything overly engaging from the get-go; it's still slow-burning soul music through and through.
John Legend's newer works may be great as well, but Get Lifted
is simply fantastic. Rarely are debut albums ever this consistent and confident, and Legend's highly passionate lyrical and musical deliveries manage to be incredibly captivating throughout. As the uplifting Motown-influenced highlight "Live It Up" concludes the record, you really begin to realize just how promising this newcomer's career was back in 2004. Well, it's 2015 and John Legend has managed to become one of the biggest superstars of modern soul and pop music. A decade of high-profile collaborations, great chart success, and well-deserved acclaim can ultimately be traced back to this modern masterpiece. A job well done, John.